Behind the Research: Western examines the brain’s secrets   

President Alan Shepard in conversation with professors Lisa Saksida and Ravi Menon on the latest advances in neuroscience and cognition   

Researchers at Western are at the forefront of unraveling the mysteries of the human brain, making significant contributions to understanding diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.   

President Alan Shepard recently sat down with Lisa Saksida and Ravi Menon, professors at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and co-scientific directors of BrainsCAN, to discuss the latest advances in neuroscience, cognition and neurocognitive disease research.

Alan Shepard: What is BrainsCAN and how is it transforming brain research?

Lisa Saksida: BrainsCAN is a research initiative at Western with a focus on cognitive neuroscience. Cognition is how we learn, remember, think and pay attention.

Research at BrainsCAN is all’about taking that fundamental basic research about the brain - focused on cognition - and using it to have an impact on society. This could be in the form of treatments for diseases of the brain or even educating medical students. 

Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are two of the major diseases we work on. But there are many, many others, including neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and ADHD.  BrainsCAN is funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), which supports institutions or collaboration between institutions for programs to create impact in the real world.

AS: Ravi, how would you explain the work you do?

Ravi Menon: My research is really at the interface of MRI physics and neuroscience and trying to use MRI, which is just incredibly evolving. Even after 50 years, new ways of doing MRI are being discovered on a weekly basis.

It’s a very interdisciplinary environment. Our imaging equipment is used by every faculty at Western from business to education to music. And in each case, the questions being asked are around cognition.

AS: What is MRI and how does it help researchers understand the brain?

RM: MRI, magnetic r esonance i maging , is almost 50 years old and allows us to look at the structure and function of the brain in a non-invasive manner. The machines we have at Western are unique and state-of-the-art. We also now have a 15.2 tesla machine, the most powerful in Canada and among the most powerful MRI machines in the world. 

AS: Lisa, tell us about your lab.

LS: We are primarily focused on assessment of cognition. My colleague Tim [Bussey] and I invented a system based on touch screens that allows us to assess cognition in mouse models. Typically, the cognition tests used on a mouse are very different from what one would do with a human. So, we developed this iPad-like device where we can give mice tasks identical to the ones we would give to a human patient. If they get it wrong, they get a little signal, like the lights in the box turning on, to tell them it wasn’t the right answer. We have a similar process with human patients. We don’t tell them how to do the tasks. We just say, here are some images, interact with them and see how you do. 

AS: What does it mean to be a Canada Research Chair in your area of brain research?

LS: The kind of work we are doing as part of BrainsCAN and the Initiative for Translational Neuroscience is all’about teams. Mapping the brain from the molecular, cellular level up to animal and human behaviour is a complex task. What I love about research is being able to bring different scientists together and get them talking to each other. It’s at the boundaries between disciplines and between levels of analysis that the really exciting stuff happens.

AS: What are the challenges Canada faces in dealing with neurodegenerative diseases?

LS: As our population ages, we will see more individuals affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. We really need treatments and solutions for those individuals.

RM: In another decade, 10 to 50 per cent of the population will need assistance of some sort. Just the burden of that care, let alone any sort of treatment, is enough to bankrupt the country. Add the cost of current drugs-- which aren’t very good either-and you will see that therapeutics, early diagnosis and assessment need to change. Otherwise, we are in big trouble.

AS: Are we going to find treatments for brain diseases and disorders?

LS: In the last decade or so, the degree to which we’ve developed our understanding of the brain has been immense. We’re developing lots of new technologies to help us understand the brain better at the molecular and cellular level. There is a great promise for developing treatments for brain disease over the next 10 or 20 years.

For example, w e might find similar memory impairments in certain forms of dementia and in ADHD. So we might be treating those similar impairments rather than a disease as a whole.

I think we’re on the cusp of starting to develop personalized treatments for brain disease , much like what has happened with cancer treatments. Not everybody who gets dementia has the same kind of dementia. There are different kinds already, but now we are trying to refine treatment for these types, at a molecular level, a genetic level, or even at the cognitive level.

RM: The progression to find treatments will occur probably in two steps, with what we’re now learning and what we have learned over the last generation about the brain. We’re getting to the point where we can at least contemplate and in some cases effectively modify the trajectory of disease. That’s the first step. At least we can slow things down. That’s not a cure. Cure is maybe a different approach. That’s the approach Lisa just talked about: rather than treating a particular pathology, we’re actually treating a constellation of cognitive symptoms that are maybe common across a bunch of different disorders.

AS: What do you like best about being a researcher?

LS: I love being able to work on problems with the potential to have tremendous benefits to society.

RM: The best hours of my day are when I sit with a student talking, debating and scrawling through a problem on my whiteboard, coming up with ideas and how to test them, and sending the student off to do experiments and waiting in anticipation for the results. Sometimes your hopes are dashed and sometimes your ideas are validated, and then you go on to the next one. 

AS: Tell me more about working with students and teaching.

RM: Students bring techniques to our labs that they’ve learned in undergraduate summer jobs that didn’t exist when we were going to school. Like machine learning or a lot of electrical engineering approaches. I don’t know how these techniques work and the students do. They are constantly infusing our research with state-of-the-art ideas.

You only get that when you interact with the students and turn them on to the problems that they might want to address. They may want to do research, or motivate somebody to become a doctor, or a venture capitalist who will fund a new drug for underprivileged kids in a resource-constrained part of the world. You just never know where that’s going to go. And you have to interact with students to get that.

LS: Students bring in so much energy and fresh perspectives. My lab members understand the technology they’re using much better than I do. Seeing their approach and eagerness is very motivating for me. Working with them at all levels helps to keep me on my game and is incredibly inspiring.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Watch it here .