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‘Urgent insight’

More than $1.8 million investment for research focused on Alzheimer’s disease, brain repair and chronic pain

By Jeff Green

Memorial researchers are advancing critical health-related studies that matter to Canadians thanks in large part to more than $1.8 million in new funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Trio of recipients

Dr. Qi Yuan, associate professor of neurosciences, Division of BioMedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, received $1,032,750 for research focused on better understanding the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Josh Rash, assistant professor, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science, secured $696,150 to evaluate the efficacy of oxytocin on pain and function among individuals who experience chronic pain.

And, Dr. Michelle Ploughman, Canada Research Chair in Rehabilitation, Neuroplasticity and Brain Recovery, Faculty of Medicine, secured $100,000 for a project focused on whether or not exercise can help heal the brain and protect it from degeneration.

‘Critical’ research

“In people the earliest brain change linked to Alzheimer’s disease occurs in a set of brain cells called the locus coeruleus,” Dr. Yuan explained to the Gazette.

Dr. Qi Yuan
Dr. Qi Yuan
Photo: HSIMS

She and her colleagues are studying the effects of abnormal tau protein, which is linked to memory loss.

“We believe that if we can understand the changes that happen due to modified abnormal tau in the locus coeruleus cells and, later on in other memory cells, we might stop Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Yuan said. “This new CIHR grant will permit us to begin to really understand what goes wrong when modified tau is expressed in brain cells.”

Currently there are over half a million Canadians living with dementia; there will be a two-fold increase in the next decade, according to the Alzheimer’s Society Canada. To date, there is no cure. But – tau pathology now appears to be the first change in the later development of the disease.

“Understanding what abnormal tau does to cells and genes is critical for us to understand disease causation and to direct future therapeutic efforts,” Dr. Yuan added. “The abnormal tau changes that have been described occur so early that if we can prevent their progression, no one would develop dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease.”

Improving lives

Thanks to his new funding, Dr. Rash is leading a four-year clinical trial that involves collaborators from across the country. The aim is to improve the lives of individuals who experience chronic pain, which affects one in four Canadians.

“Living with chronic pain has a detrimental impact on physical health, emotional health and quality of life,” said Dr. Rash, director of the Memorial University of Newfoundland Behavioural Medicine Centre, noting that current treatments rarely result in pain relief.

Dr. Josh Rash
Dr. Josh Rash
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Dr. Rash says the use of a nasal spray containing manufactured oxytocin may improve pain management.

“Oxytocin is produced naturally in the human body and has few side effects or drug-interactions,” he explained.

As part of their study, Dr. Rash and his team will recruit people living with chronic nerve, muscle or pelvic pain to use the nasal spray. Some study participants will be given a placebo, some will be given the drug – all will be asked to report if they feel less pain and have better function.

“Moreover, we will evaluate whether oxytocin provides differential benefit for people who experience different types of chronic pain, such as nerve or muscle pain. We expect that the administration of intranasal oxytocin will result in a small but meaningful improvement in pain, function and quality of life.”

Fostering brain repair

Dr. Ploughman and her colleagues think that participation in aerobic exercise can alter the immune system and shift the balance from a state of inflammation towards one that fosters brain repair.

Dr. Michelle Ploughman
Dr. Michelle Ploughman
Photo: Chris Hammond

The field of exercise epigenomics is new and could have important implications for multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as other diseases that involve neurodegeneration.

Dr. Ploughman says her latest project involves investigating potential links between aerobic fitness and physical activity and the balance of inflammation and brain repair on the preservation of brain function, as well as sensorimotor and cognitive deficits in people with mild MS.

“We intend to uncover what factors contribute to disease progression and neurodegeneration.” — Dr. Michelle Ploughman

She says so far about 230 people with MS have contributed to the project. Like anyone else, she says, they want to live long and productive lives.

“We intend to uncover what factors contribute to disease progression and neurodegeneration,” says Dr. Ploughman, a Memorial alumna.

“This funding recognizes the importance of understanding how lifestyle, particularly exercise, influences the immune system and protects the brain from neurodegeneration.”

Talented researchers

Dr. Neil Bose, vice-president (research), says this work will make important advances in the researchers’ respective medical fields and propel Memorial’s international reputation for leading-edge health-related research.

“Memorial is home to incredibly talented researchers who are providing urgent insight into health-care challenges affecting people in Newfoundland and Labrador and throughout the world,” he said.

“The Canadian Institutes of Health Research continues to be one of Memorial’s most important federal partners. We are very grateful for its latest investment for Drs. Yuan, Rash and Ploughman. I wish them the best in their leading research projects.”

CIHR says its funding supports researchers at various stages in their careers who are conducting projects that cover the full range of health research topics. Read its latest results.

“I would like to congratulate the researchers and their teams of trainees, laboratory technicians and patient partners for their excellent work and their dedication to advancing scientific knowledge,” said Dr. Michael J. Strong, president, CIHR.

“We are proud to support your outstanding research projects that will make a difference in the lives of Canadians.”

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