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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.

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