Jibran Khokhar is determined to answer a chicken-and-egg question: Which precedes the other, substance use or serious mental illness?
With singular focus and an advanced set of tools, Khokhar, the new Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Translational Neuropsychopharmacology (CIHR Tier 2) at Western, is unraveling the mysterious relationship between substance use and serious mental illness.
What led Khokhar to this mystery was a shocking statistic he learned as an undergraduate student.
“It was eye-opening that 90 per cent of all cigarettes are smoked by 10 per cent of the population, and this 10 per cent of the population are those with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia,” said Khokhar.
“I am trying to understand and answer why this connection is so pronounced in this group.”
Attracting funds for groundbreaking work
The CRC program is designed to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds in engineering, natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences. Khokhar is among six Western researchers who have been appointed Canada Research Chairs in an announcement made on Aug. 29, bringing the total number of CRCs at Western to 64. Eric Arts, professor, department of microbiology and immunology at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, received renewed funding as the CRC (CIHR Tier 1) in HIV Pathogenesis and Viral Control.
Congratulations to these talented recipients from all across the country who are doing the groundbreaking work that will contribute not only to Canada’s health and well-being but also to the world’s,” said The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. “Through this funding, the Government of Canada is investing in the next generation of researchers and inspiring them to continue to think outside the box and tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow.”
The CRC program is supported by participating universities and funded through three federal funding agencies: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). There are two levels to the CRC program: Tier 1 chairs, funded at $200,000 a year for a seven-year term, are recognized by their peers as world leaders in their respective fields, while Tier 2 chairs, funded at $500,000 a year for a five-year term, are recognized as emerging leaders in their research areas.
Studying the effects of substance use on adolescents and teens
At his lab, called The Lab of NODD – short for Neurobiology of Dual Disorders – Khokhar’s team is combining pharmacological, behavioural and pre-clinical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to understand the mechanisms underlying co-occurring schizophrenia and substance use disorders, including the genetic underpinnings of addiction.
“One important facet of my research is understanding the role played by genes in this relationship,” said Khokhar, associate professor in the department of anatomy and cell biology at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
“Several gene markers have been identified that heighten the risk of addiction and the risk for schizophrenia, with some suggesting a causal link between the two. But the million-dollar question remains: What exact role do these genes play in initiating and sustaining substance use in the general public and in those with schizophrenia.”
Khokhar’s research program also involves studying the effects of substance use on adolescents and teens. “Substance use, including alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis, starts during teenage years especially with the recent rise in vaping, mostly before the emergence of mental illnesses,” said Khokhar.
Could adolescent exposure to drugs or alcohol be the tipping point, influencing the likelihood of future substance addiction or the onset of mental illnesses? What are the lasting alterations to behaviour and brain function due to such early exposure? Khokhar is attempting to answer some of these questions with his research program.
He is also hoping to shed light on the short- and long-lasting impacts of different emerging forms of substance use (e.g., vaping, edibles) on brain circuitry—both in healthy individuals and those grappling with mental illness.
The other Western faculty members to receive CRC funding include:
Hamid Abdolvand, CRC in Advanced Materials for Low-Emission Energies (NSERC Tier 2), Faculty of Engineering
Constructing nuclear reactors of the future
A professor of mechanical and materials engineering, Hamid Abdolvand’s research looks at how materials used in engineering change shape and break under different conditions, considering both size and time. His research will attempt to answer questions about what circumstances and conditions might lead to the degradation and cracking of advanced metals and alloys, such as those used in nuclear reactors. These materials are often exposed to a harsh environment while carrying significant thermal and mechanical loads. This funding will help train the next generation of engineers and highly qualified personnel, equipping them with the expertise to understand the complex behaviour of engineering components used in such demanding environments.
Amanda Friesen, CRC in Political Psychology (SSHRC Tier 2), Faculty of Social Science
Examining the nature of political engagement
Working as the director of The Body Politics Lab, political science and psychology professor Amanda Friesen’s research looks at what stops people from being equally involved in politics and how this can harm our ability to work together to solve problems as a society. Her research will compare political engagement to other risk-taking activities, with the intent to design better deliberative spaces. It will also explore how individuals respond in political and non-political conversations, and whether gender and age impact the quality and content of discussion.
Jennifer Guthrie, CRC in Pathogen Genomics and Bioinformatics (CIHR Tier2), Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Tackling infectious diseases through genomic insights
Infectious diseases pose a serious risk to public health and contribute significantly to rising health-care costs. Jennifer Guthrie’s research program uses bioinformatics to analyze the genome sequences of pathogens and integrates genomic results with clinical and epidemiological information to study disease transmission and drug resistance. The goal of Guthrie’s research program is to provide evidence for effective strategies to reduce the spread of infectious diseases and the emergence of antimicrobial resistance and prepare to fight the next pandemic.
Pingzhao Hu, CRC in Computational Approach to Health Research (CIHR Tier 2), Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Where AI meets precision medicine
The convergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and precision medicine promises to revolutionize health research and is an emerging approach to treating complex diseases. Precision medicine involves customizing disease prevention and treatment by factoring in a patient’s genes, lifestyle and other parameters. Pingzhao Hu is developing and applying robust AI and statistical analytical techniques to integrate multimodal health data related to patients’ genes, medical history, environment and lifestyle in a fast and cost-efficient manner. This will enable the discovery of novel disease subtypes, biomarkers, and biotechnology-derived therapies to facilitate the implementation of precision medicine approaches.
Maria Mathews, CRC in Primary Health Care and Health Equity (CIHR Tier 1), Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Enhancing health equity through primary health-care research
Along with family physicians, nurses on primary health-care teams play a pivotal role in promoting health equity by addressing social determinants of health. Maria Mathews’ goal is to better integrate the role of nurses in primary health care, particularly family practice nurses, nurse practitioners and licensed practical nurses. Mathews’ research program focuses on various aspects of the organization and delivery of team-based care, from studying funding models affecting the integration of family practice nurses to evaluating the Primary Care Diabetes Support Program. The research program also emphasizes the role of primary care providers during the COVID-19 pandemic and in rural communities.