MRI machine with older adult inside

Grants allow Baycrest to dive into uncharted areas in brain health research

Headshot of Drs. Randy McIntosh and Rosanna Olsen

(L-R: RRI senior scientist, Dr. Randy McIntosh and RRI scientist Dr. Rosanna Olsen)

With recent grant funding from non-profit organizations and federal grant agencies, Baycrest scientists will pursue new avenues in brain health and aging research.

Investments support the work of Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) scientists as they strive to understand how the brain’s ability to process information changes as we grow older and facilitate the detection of neurodegenerative diseases earlier and the development of targeted treatments.

Using big data to predict brain diseases and offer personalized care

Early symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease may appear similar, which is why RRI senior scientist, Dr. Randy McIntosh, is taking a detailed look at the brain’s network connections in search of a way to differentiate between the two.

“In the brain, everything works like an orchestra, there is no one part working in isolation,” says Dr. McIntosh, who is also a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. “By pinpointing the brain network changes in people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, we will be able to identify predictive markers of whether a person is likely to develop these diseases.”

His project, which makes use of some of the largest clinical databases on the two illnesses, combines computer modelling and brain imaging in search of a “unique neural brain signature” that could pave the way for clinicians to offer personalized, preventive treatments based on a simulated model of a patient’s brain. This information will be loaded into The Virtual Brain, an open-source, brain modelling platform co-created by Baycrest, and made accessible to researchers around the world to accelerate the development of targeted treatments.

Thanks to recent funding from the BrightFocus Foundation, a Maryland-based, non-profit that supports research to end Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. McIntosh and his team will continue preparing and analyzing data acquired from worldwide patient databases.

Additional funding for this monumental project could fast-track the team’s efforts, allowing them to focus on developing industry partnerships and improving the platform’s use within clinical care.

Delving into unexplored brain regions

Communication of information across the different brain regions plays a pivotal role in a person’s ability to recall memories. When we want to remember information, the brain sends a message along set “pathways,” which travels through the brain’s thalamus. As a central communication bridge between its memory centres, the thalamus is a frequently overlooked area in memory research.

“Most people think the thalamus is a simple relay station for information that is taken in from your eyes and ears to other parts of the brain,” says Dr. Rosanna Olsen, an RRI scientist and assistant professor in U of T’s Department of Psychology. “Now researchers are beginning to realize this area also facilitates more sophisticated processes, such as our ability to store memories and later retrieve them.”

Better understanding of how memory messages travel to and from the hippocampus (a crucial part of the brain to our ability to remember) among both younger and older adults aging normally could lead to targeted memory interventions in new regions.

With recent funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, a federal agency responsible for supporting discovery research and fostering innovation, Dr. Olsen and her team will tap into a large U.S. database, the Human Connectome Project, to analyze this part of the brain among thousands of participants. 

Additional funding for the project could allow the team to delve deeper into open access databases to explore other areas linked to the brain’s memory function.

Donate online or call the donations line at 416-785-2875 to support our scientists’ research.

About Baycrest Health Sciences
Baycrest Health Sciences is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides excellent care for older adults combined with an extensive clinical training program for the next generation of healthcare professionals and one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute. Baycrest is home to the federally and provincially-funded Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector, and is the developer of Cogniciti – a free online memory assessment for Canadians 40+ who are concerned about their memory.  Founded in 1918 as the Jewish Home for Aged, Baycrest continues to embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions to improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe. For more information please visit: www.baycrest.org

About Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute
The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment, and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.

For media inquiries:
Jonathan MacIndoe
Baycrest Health Sciences
416-785-2500 ext. 6579
jmacindoe@baycrest.org