Health and Community Leaders Talk: Allison Sekuler

Ontario's health research hospitals make our province healthier, wealthier, and smarter

Health and Community Leaders Talk: Allison Sekuler

By Allison Sekuler, vice-president, research, at Baycrest Health Sciences and Sandra A. Rotman Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience (@asek47)

What does health research mean to you?

Health research, specifically aging and brain health research in my role at Baycrest, means discovering the ways in which our brains function, how our brains change with age, and then linking the fundamental mechanisms of neural processing to new innovations that enhance care and add life to years for older adults.

Health research is not an individual endeavour, it’s a team sport. To fully understand aging and brain health, we need to bring together people from a diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines, each of whom contributes a different perspective and skill set to the problem at hand. One of the most pressing problems to solve in aging and brain health and one that is a focus for me in my new role, is the looming public health crisis in dementia.

Fifty million people around the world live with dementia and that number is expected to grow to 82 million within the next 12 years. In Canada alone, it’s been estimated that over 200 new cases of dementia are diagnosed every day on average, although many people remain undiagnosed, without access to treatment or care. The annual cost of dementia care in Canada has exceeded $10 billion, but the cost to those living with dementia, and to their caregivers and loved ones, is so much greater.  Research addressing the problem of dementia needs to tackle a number of fronts: detection, prevention, and treatment.

The research at Baycrest, in our world-renowned Rotman Research Institute for cognitive neuroscience, covers a broad spectrum, from solving the mysteries of the aging brain to improving evidence-based care practices at the bedside and creating cutting-edge technologies to enhance the aging experience.

Our fundamental research is complemented by the Baycrest-led Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation (CABHI). CABHI is a first-of-its-kind partnership of healthcare, science, industry and government that provides support to develop, test, and disseminate novel solutions addressing unmet needs in brain health and seniors’ care, and to create a culture of innovation within the long-term care sector.

With CABHI’s support, we are transforming our gold-standard workshops, the Memory and Aging Program and Goal Management Training, into interactive, evidence-based, brain-training products that will be available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. Through these programs, older adults and individuals affected by brain injuries learn how to boost their memory and mental performance, helping them complete everyday tasks. Our researchers also are testing new ideas for early diagnosis and intervention of dementia, and developing approaches to better support caregivers.

As Baycrest celebrates its centennial in 2018, we’re reflecting on how combining care with fundamental research has led to many critical brain health and aging discoveries and looking forward to contributing many more innovations to help people live long and live well.

How does health research contribute to a healthier, wealthier, smarter Ontario?

The aging brain holds many secrets. By working together, we can understand, protect, and enhance brain health throughout our lifetimes. But we can’t do it all alone.

As one of the most research-intensive hospitals in Canada, Baycrest partners with various institutions in Canada and across the globe. With support from the Government of Canada and Brain Canada, we launched Canada’s first cross-institutional memory clinic, which will allow researchers to speed up the pace of dementia research. Baycrest’s Sam and Ida Ross Memory Clinic is the initial pilot site for the Toronto Dementia Research Alliance (TDRA) database, merging big data and neuroscience, enabling information to be shared across institutions, and bringing researchers closer to discovering effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Our scientists also lead an international team of researchers from 12 sites across three continents developing The Virtual Brain, which combines neuroimaging with the power of artificial intelligence to enhance diagnosis and provide personalized treatments based on brain simulations. Through The Virtual Brain, Baycrest’s and Ontario’s research influence has spread, with more than 10,000 installations of the software around the world. Through our work, Baycrest researchers are dedicated to helping all adults live out their years in comfort and wellness, with a healthy body and mind.


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