Health & Community Leaders Talk: Garry Foster

How to spark a discussion about brain research

By Garry Foster, President & CEO, Baycrest Foundation

Garry Foster, President and CEO of Baycrest Foundation

At Baycrest Health Sciences, our focus is brain health and aging. We want people to learn more about what takes place in our labs and how scientific findings are having an impact on the lives of young and old alike, contributing to a healthier, wealthier, smarter Ontario.

The brain is one of the last frontiers of medical science – and we all have a stake in keeping it healthy. Close to 750,000 people in Canada have some form of cognitive impairment. The number is projected to grow in 15 years to 1.4 million as the population ages. In addition to the heartbreak of having someone you love lose their cognitive function, the cost to society is enormous when around-the-clock care and the lost earnings of family caregivers are considered.

To start a very public conversation about the importance of brain health, the Baycrest Foundation and an enthusiastic committee launched The Brain Project presented by Telus. Many generous sponsors are lending their support. After a call for submissions, 100 artists were selected to create brain sculptures that were placed in highly visible locations throughout Toronto where people can stop, admire the artistry and creativity, read the plaques and consider, for a moment or two, what brain health means to them and their loved ones.

In some cases, the artists were themselves motivated to take part because a family member or close friend has had Alzheimer’s disease, stroke or a traumatic brain injury.

The Brain Project is adding beauty and interest to the Toronto streetscape while putting brain health top of mind. Conversations about brain health are taking place as a result – and amongst people for whom the topic may have been previously unconsidered.

The need to make brain health a priority for people at every age is reflected in the research taking place today. Many of our researchers at the Rotman Research Institute – who are worldwide leaders in the study of memory and cognitive neuroscience – conduct cognitive tests and neuroimaging on healthy people as well as people who have experienced brain damage or disease.

Among other things, they are searching for biomarkers that indicate the onset of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease and aiming to identify interventions that will keep brains healthier longer. Already, our scientists have learned that bilingualism, music and social engagement can make a difference to brain health – and they’re testing a range of other interventions as well. One thing they watch for is changes in the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory.

They are also co-leaders of an international project that is creating The Virtual Brain, an integrated computer model of a fully functioning human brain. It simulates how the brain is functioning under normal circumstances, how it changes with aging and how it responds to damage from trauma or disease. In the future, it will be used to test experimental brain therapies on a computer before they are tested on humans.

Baycrest is dedicated to finding solutions that will restore brainpower sooner to people with neurological challenges and change the trajectory on the prevalence of brain disease.

 

Endeavours like The Brain Project that raise funds and spark discussion play a critical role as our researchers seek breakthroughs in prevention, intervention and early diagnosis that will ease the burden on our healthcare system and create a better and longer future for generations to come.

 

 

Read more Health and Community Leaders Talk posts here, and share your own insights about the value of health research on Twitter with our hashtag, #onHWS.  Or follow and learn more about The Brain Project on Twitter: @baycrest @supportbaycrest @TheBrainProj

To learn more about how health research makes Ontario healthier, wealthier, and smarter, check out our website and our other blog posts and videos.

Patients + Research: Heather Harris

Meet Heather

Heather Harris was one of 24 people who took part in a ground-breaking clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital for patients with early, aggressive multiple sclerosis.

Heather Harris was one of 24 people who took part in a ground-breaking clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital for patients with early, aggressive multiple sclerosis.
Heather Harris and daughter Zoe

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your health story?

I noticed a numbness in my foot one morning that had traveled up the right side of my body by the end of the day. That was my first attack. I was given a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), months before my wedding and my 25th birthday. My disease progressed quickly, with a number of attacks every year despite the disease-modifying drugs I was taking. It became difficult to walk, to stand for significant periods of time, and to lift my arms above my head. I lost my vision completely in each eye at different times and was numb all over. My coordination and balance began to be affected and I was extremely fatigued. I felt like my disease was out of control—that there was nothing I could do to stop the inevitable—which was spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair.

Why does health research matter to you?

Health research gave me a chance to fight the inevitable. It is the reason I am not in a wheelchair today.

A clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital was my chance to fight MS. I underwent an intensive combination of chemotherapy and stem cell transplants in a procedure known as immunoablation and autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (IAHSCT). It was a difficult and risky process, but it was worth it.

Today I am able to do all of the things that I want to do. The research conducted by Dr. Harold Atkins and Dr. Mark Freedman has given hope to patients like me, who had a rapidly progressing disease that did not respond to the more traditional medications and therapies. Life in a wheelchair is now not the only alternative for us. MS is such an individual disease, and everyone experiences it differently. What works for one patient doesn’t necessarily work for another. Hopefully this clinical trial will lead to research and breakthroughs that help more people with MS.

How does health research contribute to a healthier Ontario?

Health research allows us to do things that no one thought possible. If I had my same disease 20 years ago, I would have been in a wheelchair by the time I was 35 years old. Because of health research, I am able to walk, to work full time, and to run after my two-year-old daughter.

Patients depend on health research for new and improved treatments that will change the course of their disease or condition, and alter the outcome for the better. Health research will ensure that we are able to move forward and develop more effective, safer treatments for patients in Ontario.

How can the patient voice support, improve or empower health research?

Hearing the stories of patients who have been directly impacted by health research will raise the profile of research with the public. It will encourage other patients to seek out and participate in clinical trials and other research, the results of which bring hope to so many.

It is important that as patients, we stay connected to the research that is happening in different medical fields, and that we are advocates for health research. Status quo is not an option for many who are suffering. Health research will provide hope for all.

 

If you would like to participate in the Patients + Research blog series, please email or call Elise Bradt at ebradt@caho-hospitals.com, 416-205-1469, or tweet us at @CAHOhospitals.

Stay tuned on our blog for more Patients + Research posts and share your own insights on Twitter with the hashtag #onHWS. To learn more about why health research matters for Ontario and how you can support it, download the Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter Policy Platform and check out our other blog posts and videos.

 

Health & Community Leaders Talk: Dr. Paula Rochon

How research closes health gaps

By Dr. Paula Rochon, Senior Scientist, Women’s College Research Institute; Vice-President, Research, Women’s College Hospital; Professor, Department of Medicine and Institute of Health Policy, Management & Evaluation, University of Toronto; Senior Scientist, Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences

Dr. Paula Rochon: How health research closes health gaps

Health research is an opportunity to fill gaps in knowledge, helping us deliver efficient health care that meets patients’ needs. Women’s College Research Institute scientists are focused on closing the health gap between men and women.

Women often have different risk factors for disease, symptoms and treatment responses. But scientific studies do not always collect the information needed to reveal these differences. This data gap in health research has not gone unnoticed. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently pledged $80 million to close gender data gaps and help women and girls.

As a geriatrician, health services researcher and the Retired Teachers of Ontario Chair in Geriatric Medicine at the University of Toronto, I am particularly concerned about the data gap for older adults. Older people, particularly those of advanced age, are poorly represented in research — and women make up the bulk of the older population. More importantly, when they are included, information is not reported separately on women and men. As a result, we lack important data to help us tailor therapies to benefit women and men. As our population ages, it becomes even more important to understand how women and men differ, through gender-sensitive and equity-oriented analyses of older adults along various trajectories of healthy aging.

It is important to view aging beyond just the presence or absence of disease, but in terms of how we can optimize quality of life for older adults and maintain their health. For example, older adults are more likely to be taking multiple, sometimes conflicting drugs that could cause adverse reactions. In a recent study, we found than many Ontarians are prescribed both cholinesterase inhibitors for dementia and anticholinergic drugs, which have side-effects that cause confusion and undo the cognitive benefits of the dementia treatment. Increasingly, researchers are exploring ways to prevent problematic polypharmacy and de-prescribe potentially unnecessary drugs. This includes reducing the number of unnecessarily prescribed anti-psychotic drugs, which increase the risk of falls and hospitalizations that are costly to the health system and most important to older people.

Research that finds solutions to these challenging problems prevent problems from developing and can help Ontarians live long, healthy lives with independence. They can also make our health system more efficient and cost-effective.

 

Read more Health and Community Leaders Talk posts here, and share your own insights about the value of health research on Twitter with our hashtag, #onHWS.

To learn more about how health research makes Ontario healthier, wealthier, and smarter, check out our website and our other blog posts and videos.

Patients + Research: Larry Meikle

Meet Larry 

Larry Meikle is a retired Ontario civil servant. He received his Master of Fine Arts in Creating Nonfiction Writing in 2015 from the University of King’s College in Halifax, and is currently writing his first book.

Larry participated in CAMH’s IMPACT study involving genetic testing and depression

 

My experience with personalized medicine

Over the past three years, I’ve felt better than I have for decades. I could not have completed my master’s if I were feeling as I did in the past, before I participated in CAMH’s IMPACT study on mental health problems and DNA.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 1997, and I’ve been taking antidepressants ever since. I tried going off my meds a few times, but painfully realized I couldn’t battle depression without them.

A few years ago, the antidepressant I had been taking for so many years suddenly stopped working. My family doctor started me on a new medication, which went reasonably well. But anxiety was still a problem and I felt I could be doing much better.

My doctor suggested yet another medication, but I dreaded facing the slow and painful process of winding down one med, then building up the dosage of a new one. And what if it didn’t work? There was no guarantee the new antidepressant would work any better than my current one; in fact, I could have gotten worse. Changing meds was a “crap shoot” – a roll of the dice.

In fall 2012, I learned about CAMH’s research project involving genetic testing and depression, and told my doctor that I was interested in participating. In January 2013, I was accepted into the study. Not only that – my doctor’s practice would be the first site in the official “rollout” of the study to the Ontario public, and I would be the first person genetically tested in this rollout.

Taking part in this study was a breeze. I provided a saliva sample for genetic testing at my next doctor’s appointment, and two days later I had the results.

The test results listed a number of common antidepressants in “green” –these medications my body would metabolize well, with little chance of experiencing negative side effects. Other antidepressants were listed in “yellow,” advising my doctor that they may not be as effective for me. Fortunately my current medication was in the “green” area, a perfect fit.

Because I felt I could be doing better, my doctor suggested two options – choose another antidepressant from the “green” category, or increase the dose of my current medication. He said he would not have been confident in increasing my dose without these test results.

It was an easy choice. I asked to have my dosage increased, which he did slowly, tracking my progress until we reached the point I’m at today: taking double the dose as before and feeling much, much better for it.

Some feelings of depression linger, as I expect they always will, but the anxiety has been dramatically reduced.

CAMH’s DNA test played a significant role in enabling me to get my life back on track, and now other Canadians with depression have the same opportunity. I believe this genetic test is an exciting new tool in the treatment of depression.

I hope my story will inspire more public discussion of depression, thereby reducing the stigma associated with this illness.

 

Larry participated in CAMH’s IMPACT study, which is still underway, Find out more about the IMPACT study at www.im-pact.ca.

 

If you would like to participate in the Patients + Research blog series, please email or call Elise Bradt at ebradt@caho-hospitals.com, 416-205-1469, or tweet to us at @CAHOhospitals.

Stay tuned on our blog for more Patients + Research posts and share your own insights on Twitter with the hashtag #onHWS. To learn more about why health research matters for Ontario and how you can support it, download the Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter Policy Platform and check out our other blog posts and videos.