News at Medicine - January 2020 - Advancing critical health research

Advancing critical health research
January 31, 2020
Faculty of Medicine researchers are advancing critical health-related studies that matter to Canadians thanks in large part to more than $1.8 million in new funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).


With files from Jeff Green

Dr. Qi Yuan, associate professor of neurosciences, Division of BioMedical Sciences, received $1,032,750 for research focused on better understanding the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Josh Rash, assistant professor, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science, secured $696,150 to evaluate the efficacy of oxytocin on pain and function among individuals who experience chronic pain.

And, Dr. Michelle Ploughman, Canada Research Chair in Rehabilitation, Neuroplasticity and Brain Recovery, Faculty of Medicine, secured $100,000 for a project focused on whether or not exercise can help heal the brain and protect it from degeneration.

‘Critical’ research

“In people the earliest brain change linked to Alzheimer’s disease occurs in a set of brain cells called the locus coeruleus,” Dr. Yuan explained.

Photo by Jennifer Armstrong, HSIMS

She and her colleagues are studying the effects of abnormal tau protein, which is linked to memory loss.

“We believe that if we can understand the changes that happen due to modified abnormal tau in the locus coeruleus cells and, later on in other memory cells, we might stop Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Yuan said. “This new CIHR grant will permit us to begin to really understand what goes wrong when modified tau is expressed in brain cells.”

Currently there are over half a million Canadians living with dementia; there will be a two-fold increase in the next decade, according to the Alzheimer’s Society Canada. To date, there is no cure. But – tau pathology now appears to be the first change in the later development of the disease.

“Understanding what abnormal tau does to cells and genes is critical for us to understand disease causation and to direct future therapeutic efforts,” Dr. Yuan added. “The abnormal tau changes that have been described occur so early that if we can prevent their progression, no one would develop dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease.”

Fostering brain repair

Dr. Ploughman and her colleagues think that participation in aerobic exercise can alter the immune system and shift the balance from a state of inflammation towards one that fosters brain repair.

The field of exercise epigenomics is new and could have important implications for multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as other diseases that involve neurodegeneration.

Dr. Ploughman says her latest project involves investigating potential links between aerobic fitness and physical activity and the balance of inflammation and brain repair on the preservation of brain function, as well as sensorimotor and cognitive deficits in people with mild MS.

“We intend to uncover what factors contribute to disease progression and neurodegeneration.”— Dr. Michelle Ploughman

She says so far about 230 people with MS have contributed to the project. Like anyone else, she says, they want to live long and productive lives.

“We intend to uncover what factors contribute to disease progression and neurodegeneration,” says Dr. Ploughman, a Memorial alumna.

“This funding recognizes the importance of understanding how lifestyle, particularly exercise, influences the immune system and protects the brain from neurodegeneration.”

CIHR says its funding supports researchers at various stages in their careers who are conducting projects that cover the full range of health research topics. Read its latest results.

“I would like to congratulate the researchers and their teams of trainees, laboratory technicians and patient partners for their excellent work and their dedication to advancing scientific knowledge,” said Dr. Michael J. Strong, president, CIHR.

“We are proud to support your outstanding research projects that will make a difference in the lives of Canadians.”