It is an exciting time for brain research, and some of the world’s top minds have a new home to help propel new discoveries
On the eve of his 50th year as a brain researcher, Max Cynader has united some of the world’s top minds under one roof to unlock the mysteries of the human brain.
At the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health (DMCBH) officially opening today, researchers in neuroscience, neurology and psychiatry are joining forces with healthcare professionals and their patients – a unique marriage of research and clinical care that Cynader says will dramatically change the way brain disease and injury are studied and treated.
“We’re in a revolutionary time in brain research and both the challenge and the opportunity are massive and fantastic,” says Cynader, director of the DMCBH and Canada Research Chair in Brain Development. “Science is moving ahead at a spectacular rate with advances in imaging, genetics, and computing. Meanwhile, the societal need and interest in understanding how our brain works has never been greater.”
A partnership between UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health, the DMCBH is supported by provincial and federal governments and philanthropy, including a $15-million gift from the Djavad Mowafaghian Foundation. World-class research programs, coupled with state-of-the-art clinics and patient care facilities will address debilitating brain dysfunctions, including Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and mood disorders.
The 13,709-square-metre building also houses research labs focused on concussion, stroke, addiction and healthy aging and serves as a venue for the education and training of hundreds of medical and graduate students.
“We’re in a revolutionary time in brain research. Both the challenge and the opportunity are massive and fantastic.”
Brain dysfunction currently affects an estimated one in three Canadians. By 2020, brain disease will overtake heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death and disability in Canada.
“The Centre for Brain Health is poised at the confluence of all these streams and it embodies all the things I believe are critical to the success of brain research, brain care and healthy aging for the next 50 years,” says Cynader.
Shedding light on adolescent concussions
“Our ideas about concussion have really changed,” says Naznin Virji-Babul, a physical therapist and neuroscientist who uses advanced imaging tools to peer into the impacts of concussion on the adolescent brain – long after the initial shock.
“We can now see structural changes in the brain two to three months after someone has had a concussion, including in areas that govern learning, emotional development and decision-making.”
What’s surprising, says Virji-Babul, who leads the Perception-Action Lab at DMCBH, is that while one would typically associate damage with decreased activity – in the case of a stroke, for example – the adolescent brain is showing increased activity after damage has occurred.
“There are two crucial periods where the brain undergoes an explosion of development – the first five years of life and during adolescence,” she says. “So is this increased activity indicative of the brain organizing itself to heal the damage, or is it causing some of the concussion symptoms, such as feeling foggy and distracted?”
Clarity on that question can lead to better treatment and safety guidelines, but until then, she says, always wear a helmet and pay close attention to symptoms and behaviours of your child after a ‘ding’ in the head.
“Don’t push them back into the game too early.”
Targeting mental illness
“For a long time, depression was seen as one disease,” says Raymond Lam, medical director of the Mood Disorders Centre of Excellence at DMCBH.
“Right now, a diagnosis of depression isn’t particularly useful,” he says. “There are very effective treatment options, but on average only half of the patients respond to the first prescribed treatment. It takes a lot of trial and error to get the medication right.”
Depression and other mood disorders should be seen more like pneumonia or breast cancer, where there are different disease subtypes, each with its own biological signature and set of effective treatments, says Lam.
Those unique genes and proteins – also known as imaging biomarkers – are the targets of a national clinical study that Lam and colleagues from seven other Canadian universities are undertaking. The goal of the Canadian Biomarker Integration Network in Depression (CAN-BIND) is to not only develop blood tests to detect depression, but also narrow in on the type of depression and how each might be best treated.
The hunt for Parkinson’s genes
Matthew Farrer is hot on the trail of genes and mutations associated with Parkinson’s disease (PD).
The medical geneticist and neuroscientist says in many communities and families, the neurodegenerative disease appears to be inherited. In fact, Farrer is responsible for identifying many of the genes linked to late onset PD, including one discovered most recently with the help of Canadian Mennonite families.
Farrer, who heads the Centre for Applied Neurogenetics at DMCBH, compared DNA samples of affected and unaffected family members and analyzed them along with thousands of other subjects in order to isolate a single mutation – located on a gene called DNAJC13.
Working with physicians and communities from around the world, Farrer and his team identify genetic risk factors for neurodegeneration and develop new therapeutic strategies based on those insights. The contribution that patients and their families make to research is crucial to developing therapies that will slow or halt the progression of these common brain disorders, “which in effect provides a cure,” he adds.
“The DNAJC13 discovery was the missing link that helped unify past genetic discoveries in Parkinson’s disease,” says Farrer, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Neurogenetics and Translational Neuroscience and the Dr. Donald Rix BC Leadership Chair in Genetic Medicine.
“Breakthroughs like this would not be possible without patients and their families, or the integrated research efforts of neurologists, neuroimagers, geneticists and neuroscientists. DMCBH will undoubtedly accelerate our ability to predict and prevent these debilitating diseases.”