Blood Brain Barrier

With your support,
we are changing
the lives
of those
with brain disorders

Learn about the Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre

Breaking new ground in the treatment of brain disorders

Whether we are treating a teen with bipolar disorder, a woman with a brain tumour or a middle-aged man with Alzheimer’s, patients and their families count on Sunnybrook when it matters most. Brain illnesses have become the leading cause of death and disability in Canada. The Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre at Sunnybrook is finding new ways to solve these complex medical conditions.

We were the first in the world to open up the blood-brain barrier without surgery, to deliver chemotherapy directly into the tumour of a brain cancer patient, and then to test the technology on patients with Alzheimer’s. This barrier protects the brain from toxins but also stops helpful drugs from reaching damaged areas of the brain. This remarkable achievement ushers in an era in which therapies can be delivered painlessly to the brain to treat conditions previously considered untreatable. Now we are exploring how to benefit patients with other neurodegenerative conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.

We need your help to advance research and develop new treatments for brain disorders. Donate now.


Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias

Learn about research that could slow the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Focus Utrasound

Focused ultrasound

Learn how focused ultrasound will revolutionize treatment of brain disorders.

Mood & Anxiety

Learn about unique programs leading understanding of complex illnesses.


Stroke care

Learn how Sunnybrook’s stroke program is saving lives.

Learn more about the Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre

Unlocking the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias

Unlocking the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias

Within the Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre, our researchers and physicians are collaborating on a range of projects to fight one of the most devastating illnesses of our time. There is a whole new frontier in Alzheimer’s research – preventing the disease in those who are at high risk. Sunnybrook is part of two global studies that could offer the best hope yet on how to stop this disease in its tracks.

The studies are using therapeutic drugs to target the toxic brain protein which can damage the brain causing memory loss, word-finding difficulty and other cognitive problems. The studies hold exciting promise for patients in the early or presymptomatic stages of Alzheimer’s: a chance to live a full life for much longer.

Eye exams could aid in early detection

Our researchers are using the eyes as a window into the brain to detect early warning signs of dementia. Seeing inside the capillaries of the retina using advanced technology shows how healthy the small blood vessels are in the cortex of the brain.

Sunnybrook is also working in collaboration with other groups to find ways to predict when and how neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s, will strike, based on the connection between cognitive impairment and abnormal eye movements.

Focused Ultrasound

Focused Ultrasound

Imagine that doctors could deliver therapy deep inside the brain, beyond the reach of any scalpel or any drug. Imagine this changes the course of a teenager’s depression, a parent’s Alzheimer’s disease or a neighbour’s stroke. Now imagine it’s all done painlessly – using waves of sound.

Sunnybrook is a world leader in exploring the potential of focused ultrasound to realize this vision. In two historic firsts, we have penetrated the blood-brain barrier for different research projects: to deliver therapy to a patient with a brain tumour, and to patients with Alzheimer’s. Want to learn more? Explore focused ultrasound through Sunnybrook research and patient stories.

Focused Ultrasound

Focused ultrasound provides revolutionary new approach for treatment

Sunnybrook is leading the world in the use of focused ultrasound to open the blood-brain barrier as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s. Sunnybrook will soon conduct the world’s first clinical trial to use focused ultrasound to treat Alzheimer’s patients with the aim of understanding if the harmful plaque associated with Alzheimer’s can be somewhat cleared by simply opening the blood-brain barrier barrier.

The blood-brain barrier protects the brain from harmful toxins and researchers hypothesis that temporarily opening the barrier will allow the body’s own natural defenses to help clear amyloid plaque. Researchers at Sunnybrook Research Institute are also investigating a variety of promising therapeutics that could combine with opening the blood-brain barrier including antibodies and gene therapy that can help the brain to restore brain cell functioning and stem cells that improve brain function.

Mood & Anxiety

Healing and restoring lives through unique programs

Sunnybrook is Canada’s most comprehensive mood and anxiety disorders program and home to a number of unique programs that don’t exist anywhere else in the country.

Our psychiatry program is unique in that we treat teens to seniors; we integrate psychiatry with the other brain specialties, including neurology and neurosurgery; and we collaborate across specialties to accelerate understanding and translate research to patient care faster. Here are examples of programs changing outcomes for patients and their families.

The Murphy Family Centre for Mental Health

The Murphy Family Centre for Mental Health is committed to advancing the understanding and care of people with severe mental illness, including mood and anxiety disorders. In this new Centre we will address mental illness like we would other serious brain disorders such as stroke or dementia, by collaborating across medical disciplines to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Centre for Youth Bipolar Disorder

Sunnybrook’s Centre for Youth Bipolar Disorder, the largest in Canada, helps hundreds of young people tackle one of the most tenacious disorders known to medicine. The centre has become internationally known for clinical care, scientific discovery, education and advocacy, changing not only individual lives but how we think about bipolar disorder.

The Family Navigation Project

The Family Navigation Project guides families with young people suffering from mental illness and/or addiction to appropriate care in a timely fashion. Created in response to parents desperate for help, the project is entirely donor-funded, with the majority of support from the annual RBC Race for the Kids. We have navigated more than 1,600 families to urgently needed services and specialists, and we continue to grow to meet demand.

Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre

With a focus on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that is unique in Canada, the Thompson Centre is conducting research and treating patients to improve lives and to change the way the world understands and treats this devastating illness and related disorders. Areas of research include the impact of genetics on OCD medications, exercise alone or in combination with cognitive-behaviour therapy, and variables that affect the risk of developing OCD, anxiety and mood disorders during pregnancy and postpartum.

Stroke care

Treating the most complex cases

From preventing a stroke to urgent stroke care to ensuring patients recover to their best potential, Sunnybrook’s stroke program is changing and saving lives through research and innovation. We have special expertise in challenging and unusual cases, such as stroke in young people, stroke during pregnancy, and stroke caused by vascular diseases in the brain or at the base of the skull.

Changing how stroke is treated around the world

In 2015 Sunnybrook was one of 22 sites worldwide that proved a novel treatment reduced mortality by 50 per cent and significantly improved stroke outcomes – the most dramatic advance in emergency stroke care in two decades. By inserting a thin tube via the thigh to the brain, the clot is removed by a retrievable stent to restore blood flow. Sunnybrook is one of only seven centres in Ontario that offers the procedure 24/7. We are now collaborating on a follow-up trial where patients will receive a neuroprotective drug in the ambulance before the procedure, to see if we can further improve the functional abilities of patients after stroke.


Saving Yana’s life

Yana returned home from grocery shopping and was unloading her bags when she collapsed. Her friend found her on the floor, unable to move or speak, and called 911 immediately.

The ambulance took Yana to Sunnybrook where she was diagnosed with an ischemic stroke caused by a blood clot in the brain. In a time-sensitive health crisis such as Yana’s, quick diagnosis and treatment are essential to saving as much brain function as possible. Doctors immediately gave Yana tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), also known as a clot buster. It didn’t work because her clot was too large.

If this had happened six months earlier, Yana might not have survived the stroke or may have ended up with severe brain damage and paralysis. But there was a new innovative treatment available at Sunnybrook: endovascular retrieval, which, in clinical trials, had reduced the overall mortality rate of stroke patients by 53 per cent. Sunnybrook was one of 22 sites worldwide that participated in the study.

By inserting a thin tube into an artery in the groin, through the body and into the brain vessels, using X-ray for guidance, the clot is pulled out by a stent, restoring blood flow to the brain before permanent damage has occurred.

It was two in the morning when neurosurgeon Dr. Victor Yang, neuroradiologist Dr. Peter Howard and a team of specialists set to work, knowing that they were up against the clock. Yana faced multiple hurdles.

She couldn’t understand what was happening because both her speech and language comprehension were affected by the stroke.

She couldn’t be sedated because the doctors couldn’t risk the time to intubate her and the intubation would have increased her blood pressure.

She was petrified and kept moving around, making it difficult for the doctors to thread the tube through her.

The clot had broken in two so the medical team had to find and retrieve not one, but two clots.

At 4:13 a.m., the second clot was removed. The endovascular retrieval had been successful.

Yana has almost fully recovered, is mobile, and is talking in both English and Russian again. She is grateful that Sunnybrook was using this cutting-edge treatment.

“About a month after I left the hospital, I saw some friends, and they couldn’t believe I’d had a stroke. This endovascular retrieval is a miracle. To everyone who helped me at Sunnybrook, ‘Ya vas lublu’, or as we say in English, ‘I love you’!”

Together we can accelerate the understanding, treatment and care of brain disorders

Together we can accelerate the understanding, treatment and care of brain disorders

By 2020, brain disorders are expected to be the leading cause of death and disability in Canada. We aim to change this.

Sunnybrook’s Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre is taking the lead in solving the biggest threats to brain health: stroke, dementia and mental illness.

We are unique amongst Canadian brain sciences programs. Some programs address mental illness alone, some conduct only research, some provide only clinical care and some focus on one specific age group. We are the only program that brings all of this together into one fully integrated effort.

We are building the Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre to be a hub for patient care research and teaching. It will be a centre where collaboration among our brain sciences experts will spark new discoveries and bring new innovative treatments to patients sooner.

Here’s how:

Unprecedented collaboration across disciplines – brain disorders will not be understood by just one medical specialty

Our neurologists work alongside psychiatrists. Our neurosurgeons work alongside brain imaging specialists. Our psychiatrists work alongside pharmacologists.

Why? Because each specialty teaches us lessons about the others, thereby accelerating research that will return patients to their families faster and healthier than before.

Care throughout the lifespan – from adolescence to the senior years

Our experts from the Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre care for people at all stages of life. Most discoveries made in one age group translate to the others, ultimately impacting all ages.

Integrating psychiatry and the other brain sciences

By integrating psychiatry and the other brain sciences, we take psychiatry out of the shadows and shine a light of understanding on it. Mental illness should be treated like any other medical condition.

Embedding research in patient care

Uniting research with patient care means patients receive new treatments sooner. Our ultimate goal is to improve outcomes and restore patients to health as quickly as possible.

Our aim is to provide the clinical care, research, leadership and education needed to confront one of the largest health threats of our time: disorders of the brain. We have the teams in place. We have the expertise. And we have the technology.

Now, we need the community’s help in creating a new centre that will accelerate the understanding, treatment and care of people with brain disorders.

Watch: Learn more about the centre from patients and Sunnybrook brain specialists

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Patient Story:
Yana Matveyeva

Saving Yana’s life
When Yana Matveyeva suffered from a stroke, doctors at Sunnybrook were in a race against time to save her from permanent brain damage. Only an innovative new treatment made it possible.

Read full story