Five areas of groundbreaking neurological research at UBC
The University of British Columbia’s reputation as a world- class centre for brain research is bolstered by a history of major discoveries. Here is a look at five key areas of research leading to new understandings and potentially innovative treatments.
Don’t forget to sweat The benefits of exercise for cardiovascular health are well established. But a growing body of research is showing that exercise improves brain health too. Some of this revolutionary work is taking place at UBC, including research by Dr. Teresa Liu- Ambrose, a physiotherapist and neuroscientist. She is focused on understanding whether exercise can reduce the negative effects of dementia. Her work is already pointing to its benefits, including a recent study showing three hours of exercise per week reduced the risk of vascular dementia in at-risk populations.
Concussions and t he t eenage
brain While the link between concussions and early- onset dementia in professional athletes has dominated the headlines, UBC researcher Dr. Naznin Virji- Babul, a physiotherapist and neuroscientist, aims to understand the impact of concussions much closer to home: its effects on teenage children. “Adolescence is a time when there is explosive growth in the brain, especially in frontal areas dealing with attention, risktaking and decision- making,” she says. “What I’m trying to address is how having a concussion, or multiple ones, can affect these very important functions.” So far, her work has uncovered that having even one concussion can lead to lasting changes. “There are a small percentage of kids who get a single concussion and have prolonged symptoms,” she adds. “So we’re trying to understand what makes those kids different.”
Treatment for epilepsy, a potential cure for Alzheimer’ s The Clinic for Alzheimer and Related Disorders, located in the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, has spawned its share of groundbreaking research. Among those advancing Alzheimer research is Dr. Haakon Nygaard, a neurologist and director of the clinic. His research is examining the potential of medications for epilepsy and cancer in treating Alzheimer’s, which to date has no effective drug therapies. He and his team have found that a new anti- seizure drug completely reversed memory loss in rodent models of Alzheimer’s. Nygaard also is involved in a collaborative study testing how a chemotherapy agent could target a protein playing a central role in the disease.
Parkinson’s disease, a family affair Twenty years ago, Parkinson’s disease was thought to have no genetic link. But thanks to important studies mapping the genomic pathways of the disease, we now know the disease does have origins in our genetic makeup. UBC has played a critical role in many of these discoveries, including the work of Dr. Matt Farrer, Canada excellence research chair in neurogenetics and translational neuroscience. “We’ve discovered a number of the key genes explaining the mechanism of dopamine production in the brain and how it becomes impaired when these genes malfunction,” he says. “This could lead to the development of drugs that are not just helpful for people with disease, but also for the brain health of at- risk and even healthy populations.”
From mad cows to Lou Gehrig One of the more renowned discoveries coming out of UBC in the last several years has been Dr. Neil Cashman’s work on the origins of variant Creutzfeldt- Jakob disease, the human version of mad cow disease. Cashman helped uncover the role of prions, proteins that misfold in the brain cells, leading to the deadly neurodegenerative disease. Now he’s turning his attention to another devastating illness, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. His work examines how an amino acid — tryptophan 32 — causes a protein, SOD1, to misfold, leading to disease in people with no genetic link. “I often use the chain of dominos analogy — when one protein of a particular type misfolds, it triggers a chain reaction in normal proteins in the cell, which can then be passed on from cell to cell.” Cashman’s work also involves new drug therapies, including using a vaccine-like treatment currently licensed to biotech companies seeking a possible cure for ALS.