MAKING THE CONNECTION
UBC’s Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, a global centre for trail- blazing research and treatments
More than just an institution of higher learning, the University of British Columbia empowers its students and faculty in groundbreaking research that endeavours to make an impact on real world issues. In part three of a series, we examine innovative neurological investigations underway at UBC.
JOEL SCHLESINGER Postmedia Content Works
Some stroke patients on the West Coast are hoping to pedal their way to a faster recovery.
It’s a potentially low- tech answer to a complex brainhealth problem affecting millions of Canadians that likely would have been unheard of just a few years ago, when rehabilitation often involved patients taking it slow and easy.
Yet here they are today, encouraged to hop on a recumbent bike and pedal flat out for three minutes. Then they rest for three minutes, and repeat the ride-and-rest regimen two more times.
Examining how exer- cise may improve recovery from stroke, it is just one of the many groundbreaking research projects on brain health taking place at the University of British Columbia.
And the hub for all of these trail-blazing investigations is the university’s Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health in the Faculty of Medicine, which opened in 2014.
“There’s an extraordinary sense of innovation and discovery here, where we have all the stars aligned in one place,” says Dr. Dermot Kelleher, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at UBC.
“In other words, the real function of what we are doing is to take and use the best of basic science, clinical science and technology for the benefit of those who matter most: patients.”
Certainly, the need is great for more and better research unravelling the mysteries of the brain and leading to new effective treatments for some of the most prevalent and devastating maladies of the brain — like Alzheimer’s and stroke. By 2020, brain disease will be the leading cause of death and disability in Canada, overtaking heart disease and cancer.
Of course, researchers at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health — the largest centre of its kind in Canada — are up for the challenge. Much of the work at the centre has a pioneering nature, from basic science discoveries that uncover the genetic and molecular causes and impacts of brain disorders, injuries and disease to clinical research that builds on those fundamental findings. These important investigations spur the development of leadingedge treatments — from new drugs to innovative, rehabilitative therapies.
The work of Dr. Lara Boyd, a physiotherapist turned neuroscientist, is illustrative of the unique research that is being conducted at the centre. She leads the study with the bike- riding stroke patients in her lab at the centre.
Already, her early work has shown that in healthy populations, high-intensity, short bursts of exercise boost the ability to learn new tasks.
“With the stroke patients, we don’t know yet if it does the same, but we’re hopeful,” she says, adding the year-old study has more to go before tangible results demonstrate its effectiveness.
Besides riding the bikes, the patients are tracked on how they perform a series of tasks involving bi-manual robots.
“We ask them to practise using their stroke- affected arm in a series of activities using a robot arm that makes them do different movements,” Boyd explains. “What we’re testing is their ability to relearn movements and regain control of their strokeaffected arms and, of course, whether or not exercise helps.”
“No two stroke patients’ brains look very much alike,” she adds. “That’s why a lot of clinical-therapy trials fail to show benefit because you’re lumping together patients who are dissimilar.”
Her research seeks to learn from past mistakes by mapping how the brain responds to new therapies, including the interval exercise on a stationary bike, with the goal of developing customized rehabilitation plans.
Kelleher says Boyd’s work represents a new dawn of brain research because “she is effectively taking many of the capabilities at the centre and using them to explore how we can develop better, more personalized ways to help patients.”
Moreover, the technological capabilities at the centre will soon get a big boost once its Brain Imaging Suite opens. The crown jewel at the new facility will be its CFI-funded hybrid positron emission tomography– magnetic resonance imaging ( PET- MRI) machine, which can perform PET and MR imaging simultaneously to allow researchers to “watch” how the brain’s chemistry and energy consumption affect brain function.
“It will be the first of its kind in Canada with this new technology, but it’s not just access to world- class technology that makes the centre special,” Kelleher adds. “Equally important is its critical mass of leading researchers collaborating across disciplines.”
Because the centre is a hotbed for important studies arising, in part, from this interdisciplinary interaction, it is also a magnet for the world’s brightest researchers. Boyd adds the same can be said for attracting top-notch graduate students — truly the lifeblood of meaningful research.
“We are tackling complicated problems, but the training students receive at the centre means the future of brain-health research is in very capable hands,” she says. “They’re the big thinkers of tomorrow.”
Neuroscientist Dr. Lara Boyd, centre, leads a unique study following bike-riding stroke patients at UBC’s Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health.