A research project on fast-tracking drug development for neurodegenerative diseases and another on technology to study the brain at the patient’s bedside are two Western projects among four across Canada awarded grants through the Canada Brain Research Fund (CBRF), an innovative arrangement between the Government of Canada (through Health Canada) and Brain Canada Foundation.
The grants for four research projects from across the country, including the two from Western, were announced at an event at Western on May 24 by Peter Fragiskatos, member of parliament for London North Centre and Viviane Poupon, president and CEO of Brain Canada.
The projects are supported by Health Canada and are matched by funding from Brain Canada’s sponsors, donors and partners.
Evaluating cognition through touchscreens
A $1.46 million grant has been awarded to an interdisciplinary team at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry led by neuroscientists Lisa Saksida and Tim Bussey. The team includes researchers Marco Prado, Vania Prado, Jacqueline Sullivan and Adrian Owen.
The grant aims to support Western’s state-of-the-art Mouse Translation Research Accelerator Platform – a touchscreen-based open-source system used for evaluating advanced cognitive functions such as memory, decision-making and attention in mouse models.
This is a critical component of the drug development and testing process for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“We have pioneered this unique touchscreen-based cognitive assessment system to fast-track the drug development process for neurodegenerative diseases. Our platform concentrates on the cognitive aspects of brain function that are directly impacted by neurodegenerative diseases but are rarely tested in mouse models in a way that is relevant to human patients,” said Saksida, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in translational cognitive neuroscience.
“While most research primarily focuses on detecting molecular-level improvements in the brain, the ultimate aim of these drugs is to enhance cognition in humans. Our platform makes bridging this gap possible,” said Bussey.
The platform’s first-of-its-kind structured open-access database is already available to over 600 researchers globally to access and share knowledge and findings. Its sister site Touchscreencognition.org already has more than 700 active users worldwide.
As part of this new funding, the different aspects of the open and collaborative approach will be tested to see where it works and where it can be improved.
Studying the brain at the bedside
An interdisciplinary team of investigators led by Emma Duerden, professor in the Faculty of Education and Canada Research Chair in neuroscience and learning disorders, received a $1.3 million grant for a project is called SPRINT: fnirS Platform foR braIn moNiToring, analytics and data repository.
The research is centred on functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), an optical brain monitoring technique that relies on using near-infrared light to measure blood flow changes in the brain. A non-invasive method, fNIRS works by having patients wear a specialized cap equipped with near-infrared light sources.
“For example, it can tell us about the brain regions that are impacted if you have brain injury or a stroke,” Duerden said.
“In the case of brain repair, when you do rehabilitation for a stroke, it can tell us about the brain regions that are coming back online from that rehabilitative therapy.”
Partnering with Lawson Health Research Institute, SPRINT will explore how fNIRS can be applied to six different population groups at partnering hospitals — Parkwood Institute at St. Joseph’s Health Care London, Ont. as well as Children’s Hospital and University Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre.
These populations range from patients in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to those in the operating room.
Duerden, who is also a Lawson scientist, said for babies in the NICU who require brain imaging, it would be difficult to use traditional methods such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
“These babies are so sick that even to make the trip in the elevator for them to go down in their incubator and to go into the MRI is a big risk. The fNIRS technology can allow us to study the brain and brain repair at the bedside,” she said.
The SPRINT team includes scientists from six faculties at the university — Education, Engineering, Health Sciences, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Science and Social Science.
Two other projects, one led by Sylvia Villeneuve of Douglas Hospital Research Centre in Verdun, QC and the other led by Dr. Signe Bray of the University of Calgary, were also awarded grants for brain research on Wednesday.
“Better research means better brain health for all. The work of Dr. Duerden, Dr. Saksida, Dr. Villeneuve and Dr. Bray will play an important role in advancing our knowledge of the brain and, ultimately, enhancing Canada’s capacity in neuroscience research,” said MP Fragiskatos.
The CBRF program has to date committed an overall federal investment of $200 million to Brain Canada Foundation (Brain Canada) in support of brain health discoveries.