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Research Is The Key To Unlocking Better Brain Health

Adriana Di Polo, PhD

President of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience 
Full Professor, Department of neuroscience, Université de Montréal 
Canada Research Chair in Glaucoma and Age-Related Neurodegeneration 

Interview with Adriana Di Polo, President of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience

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Can you tell us what you see as the biggest challenge for brain health in Canada?

One in two people will suffer from a mental illness across their lifetime. It is estimated that 1.7 million Canadians will suffer from dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, by the year 2030. The burden of brain disorders and diseases has substantially increased over the last 25 years with the aging of the population and the negative impact of the pandemic. This is having a detrimental impact on the economy, healthcare systems, and Canadian livelihood. Neurodegenerative diseases are the leading cause of disability and the second leading cause of death worldwide, and mental health disorders are the leading cause of days off work.

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How are scientists addressing this challenge?

In Canada, we are fortunate to have a rich and diverse community of brain scientists who tackle this challenge from many different angles. In addition to neurologists and brain surgeons, who treat patients directly, we must remember that the development of innovative treatment avenues relies on new basic research.

This research is being done by students, post-doctoral researcher, professors, and professional scientists working in research laboratories across the country, in universities, in governmental institutions and in private industry. Brain research is more and more collaborative and transdisciplinary, meaning that it brings together scientists with different expertise.

One recent example comes from work by a colleague and collaborator at my research institute, Valérie Mongrain, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Sleep Molecular Physiology. Dr. Mongrain studies how disruptions in sleep patterns can be used to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and epileptic seizures. Her latest research uses artificial intelligence tools developed by colleagues to analyse sleep patterns and revealed important indicators of oncoming seizures.

There are hundreds of examples of research, like this one, which initially aimed to understand how the brain works, and that can have a real impact for patients.

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How can we improve brain health in Canada?

The most important funding source for brain research in Canada is the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). Fundamental research, however, is chronically underfunded by the federal government. According to the latest data from the OECD, Canada is the only country in the G7 whose investments in Research and Development have steadily declined in the last 15 years. For several years now, CIHR has been forced to reject more than 82% of project proposals because of underfunding. This means that innovative research studies that could lead to the next blockbuster drug for brain diseases are not being funded.

Scientific research has real-world benefits to people across Canada, to Canada’s economy, and to Canada’s future prosperity. Without further investments to support health research, the ability to realize these benefits are slipping away.

We need more federal investment in Canadian scientific research. Canadians can and should speak up in favor of health research to make this a budgetary priority in Canada.

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