Neuroscience/Mental Health

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By 2020, brain diseases and disorders will overtake heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death and disability in Canada. Diseases of the brain affect one in seven Canadians, from early childhood through to old age. Five forms of mental illness, including depression, tobacco addiction, and alcohol addiction, are among the top 10 leading causes of disability. The long list of neurological disorders, which includes head and spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke, affects as many as a billion people worldwide.

Through the combined efforts of research units across the Faculty of Medicine, UBC is at the forefront of research in the areas of neuroscience and mental health.

The Brain Research Centre comprises more than 225 investigators with broad expertise in neuroscience research, who are transforming our understanding of the brain and its diseases and disorders.

Facts & Figures

  • The Brain Research Centre includes 34 Canada Research Chairs.
  • 22+ spin-off companies have come from Brain Research Centre research and innovation.
  • Research is conducted at over 20 laboratories at UBC Hospital, and at other institutions and centres across BC including the Lower Mainland, Victoria, Prince George, and UBC Okanagan.
  • The Brain Research Centre’s core footprint includes over 50,000 square feet of renovated research space.
  • The Brain Research Centre is home to the Canadian Longitudinal Survey of Aging, and the genomics hub of two Networks of Centres of Excellence (PrioNet and NeuroDevNet).
  • The Brain Research Centre is built around six research themes:
  1. Neurodegeneration (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS)
  2. Multiple sclerosis
  3. Mental health and addictions
  4. Stroke
  5. Neurotrauma
  6. Vision

The Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health is a new facility that unites clinicians and researchers in neuroscience, neurology, and psychiatry under one roof. A shared commitment to understanding and promoting healthy brain function, and close linkage between the development and provision of effective treatments for brain disorders and disease will harness the full range of multidisciplinary brain research at UBC.

A partnership between UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health, the 147,588 square foot facility is poised to make significant advances in brain health research and care.

The UBC Institute of Mental Health (IMH) is home to a community of clinicians and scientists committed to re-examining the field of mental health and mental illness, and seeking new insights into the diagnosis and treatment of some of the most challenging issues in modern medicine. Their activities include:

  • Building on recent advances in the fields of neuroscience, genetics, pathology, brain imaging, psychology and epidemiology;
  • Translating these advances into clinically effective preventive and treatment strategies including early intervention, psychotherapy, genetic counseling and medications;
  • Ensuring, through training and education, their application in everyday clinical practice throughout British Columbia.

An integral part of UBC’s Department of Psychiatry, the Institute’s interdisciplinary activities include over 90 basic and clinical researchers in the Faculties of Medicine, Science, Nursing, Education, Law and Arts.

UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health are leading two studies exploring the theory of chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI) — a hypothesis that a blockage of veins in the head and neck results in excessive brain iron and contributes to multiple sclerosis. These studies aim to provide evidence that can concretely move forward the discussion on CCSVI and MS, as well as potential treatment.

For information about CCSVI research, please visit the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute website.

Background on CCSVI and multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is the leading cause of disability in Canada. Over 60,000 Canadians are affected by this disease. The cause of MS is unknown but likely the interaction between genes and the environment play an important role. It is a disease that randomly attacks the myelin coating of nerves in the brain, optic nerves and spinal cord.

CCSVI is a hypothesis that the large veins that drain the blood from the brain and spinal cord appear to be narrowed in MS patients compared to people without the condition. The hypothesis posits that this narrowing may cause congestion of blood in the brain and trigger attacks of inflammation, possibly by causing iron deposits.

“Liberation treatment” is the term coined by Dr. Zamboni of Italy for the dilation or repair of these narrowed veins. A catheter with a balloon is inserted into the narrowed vein and then the balloon is inflated to correct the narrowing. Some surgeons have placed stents (metal tubes) in the narrowing to prevent blockages from recurring.

Recent Research Milestones

  • 2012: Led by Anthony Traboulsee (Department of Medicine), the UBC Hospital MS Clinic launches national CCSVI treatment trial called Phase I/II Interventional Clinical Trial of Balloon Venoplasty for CCSVI (Chronic Cerebrospinal Venous Insufficiency) in Multiple Sclerosis patients.
  • 2012: A study led by Helen Tremlett (Department of Medicine) shows no strong evidence that a group of drugs, beta interferons, prescribed to treat multiple sclerosis had a measurable impact on the long-term disability progression of the disease.
  • 2012: Matthew Farrer (Department of Medical Genetics) and his team identified a mutated gene relating to Parkinson’s disease. This builds on his prior discoveries of mutations in four other genes, all of which are important in familial and more typical, late onset Lewy body Parkinson’s disease.
  • 2011: Researchers led by Weihong Song (Department of Psychiatry) discovered that the genetic mechanism which destroys brain cells is responsible for early development of Alzheimer’s disease in people with Down Syndrome and for development of Alzheimer’s disease in the general population – providing a potential new target for drugs that could forestall dementia in people with either condition.
  • 2009: A team of stroke researchers led by Janice Eng (Department of Physical Therapy) developed a rehabilitation program that can dramatically improve recovery of arm function in stroke patients.
  • 2008: A team led by Weihong Song found that a drug, Valproic Acid, used to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorders, blocks the formation of plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease in animal models.
  • 2006: A team led by Brian MacVicar (Department of Psychiatry) found a new stroke death channel, offering new possibilities for stroke therapies.
  • 2005: A team led by Anthony Phillips (Department of Psychiatry) and Yu Tian Wang (Department of Medicine) found a way to block the communication between brain cells that triggers drug cravings, a finding that could lead to new therapies to treat addiction and relapse as well as compulsive behaviours associated with schizophrenia.