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Retreat showcases the best in brain sciences at Sunnybrook Research Institute

By SRI Communications  •  January 21, 2020

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Dr. Sandra Black Dr. Sonam Dubey Dr. Andy Smith Dr. Brad MacIntosh Dr. Kullervo Hynynen Dr. Bojana Stefanovic

On Jan. 9, 2020, scientists, graduate students, fellows, lab staff and students—160 in all—packed Sunnybrook’s McLaughlin lecture hall to learn about the breadth of brain sciences research conducted by Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) faculty, network with peers and make new connections.

The theme of the day-long event, hosted by the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program, which is directed by senior scientist Dr. Sandra Black, was “Circuits and Circulation Across the Lifespan.” Scientists discussed their findings on fields including neurology, brain imaging, neurobiology, dementia, stroke, psychiatry, and hearing and vision sciences, among others. At 17 talks, the day was overflowing with the sharing of knowledge. During lunch, there was a poster session, where scores of trainees—wall to wall in the adjacent auditorium—presented their research to curious onlookers. High-school students from the Toronto District School Board judged the posters, awarding prizes for the best research.

Dr. Anthony Levitt, a scientist in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program at SRI and chief of the Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook, kicked off the day by introducing the keynote speaker, Dr. Kâmil Uludaǧ, a researcher at the University Health Network’s Krembil Research Institute, in Toronto, Canada. Uludaǧ’s talk was on advanced brain imaging using 3T and 7T MRI (T stands for Tesla, which refers to the strength of the magnetic field of an MRI scanner). His lab uses ultra-high field MRI to ask questions about the structure and function of the human brain.

President and CEO of Sunnybrook, Dr. Andy Smith followed with opening remarks, thanking and congratulating attendees. “I’m delighted to see the incredible momentum that’s happening in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program,” he said.

Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, on his fourth day as the new vice-president, research and innovation, of Sunnybrook and SRI, told a story about the importance of keeping good notes as scientists, addressing a critical problem in science, and spoke of his confidence in the work of the brain researchers. “We have great people, great infrastructure, lots of funding. We can change the world. We can change how brain diseases are treated,” he said.

Springing off from the keynote, senior scientist Dr. Bradley MacIntosh highlighted examples of innovative brain imaging research in the Physical Sciences platform. He shared two-photon microscopy images of the brain’s network of blood vessels created in the lab of Dr. Bojana Stefanovic, a senior scientist at SRI and the Canada Research Chair in Functional Neuroimaging. He also featured the work of Dr. Fa-Hsuan Lin, who has studied the brains of people exposed to entertaining stimuli, like a Charlie Chaplin movie. Lin used MRI to look at these participants’ brains to probe aspects of personality and function of the brain’s frontal lobe.

Dr. Ying Meng, a neurosurgery resident and PhD student of SRI scientist Dr. Nir Lipsman, gave an overview of therapeutic focused ultrasound research done at the Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation, directed by Lipsman. She noted that researchers at the centre are conducting the first North American clinical trials of focused ultrasound “surgery” in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder or major depression for whom drugs and other therapies have not worked. During the procedure, MRI guides thousands of beams of ultrasound to converge on a discrete point and destroy dysfunctional brain circuits. It is noninvasive and does not carry the surgical risks of infection or bleeding.

Meng also described how she and her colleagues are testing the safety of focused ultrasound to open the blood-brain barrier in clinical trials of Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and breast cancer that has spread to the brain.

From Biological Sciences, senior scientist and holder of the Dixon Family Chair in Ophthalmology Dr. Carol Schuurmans presented some of her lab’s work. “The hope has always been that if you can replace the lost photoreceptors, you can perhaps restore vision,” she said. “We’re trying to use our knowledge of developmental principles to devise strategies for gene therapies for the retina,” she said.

“It’s interesting to see just how many different areas of medicine gene therapy is starting perhaps to take hold,” said Black, in thanking Schuurmans. “We will keep our hopes up,” she added.

Reflecting on the event, SRI senior scientist Dr. Benjamin Goldstein said he felt “bolstered, emboldened and inspired.” Also a presenter, Goldstein spoke about research emerging from Sunnybrook’s Centre for Youth Bipolar Disorder, of which he is the director. “The day provided a showcase for our longstanding programmatic strength and expertise regarding the link between brain circuitry and circulation, while also demonstrating that we have excellent breadth across the spectrum of clinical populations and methodologies in the brain sciences,” he said.