Baycrest - www.baycrest.orgBaycrest Breakthroughs
Innovation in Aging - Fall 2010 Issue
woman meditating

When dementia strikes, it takes its toll not only on the individual afflicted with the disease, but on their caregivers as well.
Simple, everyday interactions between the caregiver and the patient can be stressful when the patient becomes unpredictable. As the caregiver struggles to cope, they may well find their life spiralling downward into ill health and depression.
But Norman Farb, a post-doctoral fellow at Baycrest, is convinced using mindfulness meditation can halt the spiral and help caregivers reduce their stress. “Mindfulness involves being in a relaxed state of awareness, being in each moment as it is, without judgment, and observing your inner world of thoughts, feelings and sensations,” Farb explains.

Easing the mind

Recent studies have shown that mindfulness training can improve quality of life for people with fibromyalgia, chronic pain or a mood disorder – it is even used therapeutically in schools, hospitals, prisons, and other public institutions.

When Farb studied two groups of individuals at the University of Toronto in 2007 – one group had had mindfulness training; the other had not – he and his co-investigators (including Adam Anderson of Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute) were excited to see different areas of the brain lighting up in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. “The group with the mindfulness training was able to recruit the part of the brain which is involved with emotions,” he recalls. “Being able to recruit this area of the brain may give caregivers new resources in dealing with daily stress.”

Farb describes how mindfulness can help in a caregiver scenario: “When a spouse shows symptoms of dementia, like painting on a bathroom mirror, the caregiver may react angrily – why is the spouse behaving that way? The next interaction between them will be contaminated by negative emotion, which is completely understandable. But if the caregiver can use mindfulness to be more aware of their negative emotions and stop themselves from repeating bad habits, like snapping at a spouse, they can improve their quality of life.”

“Norman’s interests and mine intersect over the part of the brain that is crucial for normal social skills and emotional processing, and is also the part affected by frontotemporal dementia (FTD),” says Dr. Tiffany Chow, clinician-scientist in Baycrest’s Sam and Ida Ross Memory Clinic, and the first neurologist whose work is being supported by Women of Baycrest, which funds research into women’s brain health. “Improving the quality of life for my FTD clinic’s caregivers has been a longtime goal of mine.”

Farb’s fellowship is the first to be funded by Women of Baycrest. Most caregivers are women, and Farb says that in the mindfulness based stress reduction programs which he uses in his work, two-thirds of the participants are women. The program is an internationally accredited eight-week course.

At Baycrest, Farb’s goal is to organize a meditation based stress reduction program for caregivers, and then study the group with the training against one without it, to determine if mindfulness makes a difference in their well-being.

He summarizes his work by saying, “A huge concern in all caregiving relationships is the cost to the caregiver, since the stress can lead to depression and anxiety. With mindfulness we can help break down stressful and destructive patterns which will benefit not only the caregiver, but the patient as well.”

Future scientist supports women’s brain health movement

Two months spent as a volunteer working in the lab of renowned neuroscientist Dr. Donald Stuss at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute was enough to influence Lindsay Farber to switch her career path from medicine to neuroscience. Now in her third year of a five-year PhD program in Neuroscience at McMaster University, she spoke to Baycrest Breakthroughs about her research and future aspirations.

Lindsay FarberBB: What is the focus of your PhD research?
LF: I am using both behavioural and functional imaging methodologies to study how the visual cortex (the part of the brain that processes images) changes as a function of healthy aging. Currently, we know very little about how aging affects visual perception. It is important to conduct research in this area of the brain because many visual deficits that accompany aging cannot be fully explained by changes in the eye itself.

BB: How did your experience at Baycrest influence your area of study?
LF: I learned that we need to first understand how the healthy brain ages in order to create treatments for non-healthy brains. The Rotman Institute focuses on the frontal lobes, but a lot of the scientists started in vision labs. It’s a good place to start.

BB: Why did you join Women of Baycrest?
LF: Women of Baycrest is raising money to support scientists and research on the female brain. Many researchers focus only on male populations, so as a future female scientist it’s very important to me to be involved with a group that is trying to learn more about the female brain. I’m also very excited about my role as student representative on the planning committee for the public symposium on women’s health and aging being presented by Women of Baycrest next May.

BB: Do you have a personal connection to Baycrest?
LF: My grandfather has dementia and has been a Baycrest client for several years, so I’m well aware of the wonderful care that Baycrest provides.

BB: What are your future career plans?
LF: I love studying neuroscience, particularly healthy aging, and I want to be a neuroscientist. If there was an opportunity to work at Baycrest in the future, together with leaders in this field, that would be ideal.