Five ar­eas of ground­break­ing neu­ro­log­i­cal re­search at UBC

National Post (Latest Edition) - - HEALTH -

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.

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