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February 07, 2019 Three of Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) scientists secured more than $1.5 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) during the recent Project Grant competition. Funds are awarded to studies offering the greatest potential to advance health research, healthcare, health systems and health outcomes.

This funding supports RRI scientists whose work focuses on understanding how the brain’s ability to process information changes during aging to help determine the causes of cognitive decline in older adults, identify potential predictors and approaches for the treatment of age-related brain disorders and illuminates lifestyle practices that will protect individuals’ brain health.

Training the brain to bypass memory problems
dr-ryan.JPG Dr. Jennifer Ryan

RRI senior scientist Dr. Jennifer Ryan, the Reva James Leeds Chair in Neuroscience and Research Leadership, was awarded $688,500 over five years for her research into a unique, natural brain strategy that could be used to overcome memory problems.

Dr. Ryan’s team uncovered this approach that could help people improve their memory for relationships, known as unitization, when working with D.A., an individual with amnesia who could complete tasks that he shouldn’t have been able to due to his brain injury. D.A. suffered damage to his hippocampus, the memory centre of the brain, which makes it difficult to establish new memories and integrate and learn new information based on past experiences.

In her previous work, Dr. Ryan pursued gaining a better understanding of this tactic and she found that unitization can be used to improve older adults’ memories.

“We worked with D.A. to understand what he was doing and how he was able to bypass the damaged areas of the brain to create new memories,” says Dr. Ryan. “With this new funding, we’ll be able to take that research further and understand how this strategy can help older adults who are starting to have memory problems seen in aging or linked to early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.”

CIHR funding will help Dr. Ryan continue exploring this line of inquiry by supporting the hiring of research staff, study coordination, participant recruitment and brain scans, and pursuing new directions such as investigating whether unitization could also assist with improving problem solving abilities that are also affected by damage to the hippocampus.

Additional funding could help researchers integrate this work into The Virtual Brain, an international brain-mapping platform co-developed by Baycrest researchers, which will contribute to the creation of personalized brain rehabilitation programs for older adults by helping predict which strategy would be the most beneficial for each individual.

Monitoring the eyes to detect Alzheimer’s disease earlier

RRI scientist, Dr. Rosanna Olsen, will receive $546,975 over five years for her work in establishing a set of new eye-tracking and brain-imaging biomarkers that will help doctors identify people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease earlier.
dr-rosanna-olsen.jpg Dr. Rosanna Olsen

This area of research builds on Dr. Olsen’s previous findings where she was able to identify dementia-related brain changes, even before individuals noticed any memory or thinking problems. The study was the first to measure this particular brain sub-region in the temporal lobe, an area that is affected in early Alzheimer’s, among older adults with no reported memory problems. Since then, Dr. Olsen’s team has worked to develop an eye tracking task that directly relates to these brain measures. Her work has attracted the attention and support of other non-profit organizations, such as the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada.

“Early detection of dementia is important for effective treatment of the disease. However, no test has been able to detect dementia before the onset of symptoms,” says Dr. Olsen. “This research will help in the development of non-invasive and cost-effective eye-tracking tests that will identify those at risk of dementia earlier.”

With the CIHR’s investment, Dr. Olsen will follow-up with the participants from the previous study, as well as validate results with a larger group of research participants. She will also be expanding her focus to explore gender differences, socioeconomic status and an individual’s genetic risk.

With additional funding, Dr. Olsen could expand her work to explore the dementia risk of additional groups, such as those from more diverse cultural backgrounds, and speed up development of an easy-to-use, eye-tracking cognitive assessment that could be a part of an annual vision check-up.

Improving how to treat hearing loss as we age

Dr. Bernhard Ross, an RRI senior scientist, will receive $271,576 over three years to launch studies that could lead to improvements in treating hearing loss among older adults.

Older adults frequently complain about difficulties having a conversation in a noisy environment, such as a restaurant or a community centre.
dr-bernhard-ross.jpg Dr. Bernhard Ross

“Even older adults who are using hearing aids often complain that they still do not understand what someone is saying if many people are talking at once,” says Dr. Bernhard Ross. “This has a strong impact on their daily life because they then may withdraw from social activities.”

Hearing depends on how well the ear functions, however, the brain interprets the sounds of what someone is saying into words that are understood. Dr. Ross specializes in exploring what is happening in the brain when someone is talking and how that changes as we grow older.

His recent research found that certain brain rhythms work as the glue that combines the sounds of someone talking into words that are understood. The new CIHR funding will allow him to delve further into how the brain employs fast rhythms to process speech, even when multiple conversations are happening at once. The brain’s binding technique helps individuals create a short-term memory of the words that are heard into an understandable sentence.

With additional funding, Dr. Ross and Baycrest researchers could expand their research exploring the benefits of brain training programs to improve hearing.

CIHR funding helps scientists support research staff and trainees, study coordination, participant recruitment, brain scans, equipment and sharing the study’s findings.

Support from CIHR and other granting bodies and non-profit organizations are some of the funding sources Baycrest scientists rely on to pursue their research. Financial support from both corporate and community donors also play a critical role in improving our understanding of neurodegenerative disorders to develop effective interventions and improve care.

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