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From the ice rink to the research lab

By Eleni Kanavas  •  August 2, 2017

Emma Griese hung up her hockey skates this summer for a chance to work with the neuropsychopharmacology research group at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI).

The third-year neuroscience undergraduate student is a competitive athlete on the women’s ice hockey team at Amherst College in Massachusetts, U.S. She was accepted into the D+H SRI Summer Student Research Program under the mentorship of Dr. Krista Lanctôt, a senior scientist in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program at SRI and co-principal investigator of the neuropsychopharmacology research group. Lanctôt’s research aims to optimize the treatment of neuropsychiatric symptoms caused by disorders like dementia, traumatic brain injury, cerebrovascular disease and stroke.

Griese’s interest in brain disorders grew after her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in her first year of university. That summer, she spent several weeks shadowing Dr. Joel Ross, a specialist in Alzheimer’s disease, at the Memory Enhancement Center in New Jersey, U.S. During her placement, she became better acquainted with the science behind Alzheimer’s disease while observing clinical trials, cognitive testing and lab work associated with dementia.

“That got me hooked. The science behind why things happen has always fascinated me. It’s really the passion that I have for wanting to help people, specifically the elderly, who have problems that they are not aware of,” says Griese, who aspires to become a geriatric psychiatrist.

Immersing herself in a clinical research lab for the first time, Griese is working on a substudy of an ongoing clinical trial. The study is a randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover trial investigating the safety and efficacy of nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid used to treat agitation and aggression in patients with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are trying to see whether or not nabilone affects agitation or helps [ease] agitation in Alzheimer’s patients because that’s a really big behavioural side effect of the disease that is particularly difficult to handle for caregivers,” she says.

Agitation is a common symptom in patients with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. It has been associated with decreased quality of life, and increased rates of death, institutionalization and frailty. Because there is no consensus on the definition of agitation and what behaviours should be included in the symptom, it has been difficult to define patient populations for clinical care and research.

The International Psychogeriatric Association aimed to address this need by publishing a set of guidelines known as the International Psychogeriatric Agitation (IPA) criteria. These assist clinicians and researchers in defining agitation in patients with dementia. The IPA criteria define patients as having clinically significant agitation when demonstrating one or more of the following symptoms for a minimum of two weeks: excessive motor activity, physical aggression or verbal aggression.

She is responsible for identifying clinical predictors that include baseline demographics, cognition, behaviour, medication history and medical illness. “I’m tasked with seeing what of those, if any, are predictors of these different forms of agitation,” says Griese, who is using data already collected to categorize patients with these symptoms as defined by the IPA criteria.

The hands-on approach to the project has been an invaluable opportunity, she says. “This experience is helping me gain a better understanding of the pharmacological effects of the drugs that are already used to treat mental illnesses and introduce me to the future of psychiatric medicine,” says Griese, who hopes to attend medical school after graduation.

In September she will return to her studies to complete her final year. She has been named captain of the Amherst College women’s ice hockey team, a position she held formerly for five years with the San Jose Junior Sharks girls’ hockey team. “Being the captain and a role model is really important, especially with a group of younger team mates,” says Griese, who is the oldest player. Having grown up in Guelph, Ont. with three brothers, she started playing hockey at the age of seven. She has stayed committed to the sport despite moving to California, U.S. with her family, and then to Newmarket, Ont. where the family currently resides.

When asked if she would consider playing at the national level, she says, “It’s always been my dream to play on the Canadian Olympic team, but as my interests in academics expanded, I realized there are other fulfilling opportunities to pursue.”

Emma Griese received a D+H Summer Studentship Award.