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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Read more Health and Community Leaders Talk blog posts on our Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter site and share your insights on Twitter with the 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.

Healthy Aging: 100 Years of Research and Care at Baycrest

Healthy Aging: 100 Years of Research and Care at Baycrest

“I just plough through, that’s something I learned from my mom. Just plough through,” says Barbara Schechter, a young caregiver featured in CBC’s recent documentary, The Caregivers Club, which takes an intimate and compassionate look at the lives of four caregivers and their loved ones living with dementia. The families are also part of the Baycrest Health Sciences community in Toronto.

With three young children and a full time job, Barbara is also a caregiver for her mother. “The only thing that gets you through the day is how you’re going to manage and how you’re going to make your mom safe,” says Barbara in the documentary.

There are currently 564,000 Canadians living with dementia, and that number is expected to double by 2031. As Canada’s population ages, more and better care is needed.

Baycrest Health SciencesThat’s what drives the researchers at Baycrest Health Sciences.

Baycrest is ranked as one of the most research-intensive hospitals in Canada and is a member of the Council of Academic Hospitals of Ontario, which represents Ontario’s research hospitals. Research hospitals play a unique and vital role in Ontario’s health system, providing advanced patient care services, training the healthcare workforce, and conducting leading-edge research to discover tomorrow’s care today. They generate the expertise and evidence to drive change as system leaders, building a healthier, wealthier, smarter Ontario.

And Baycrest is doing just that. Its Rotman Research Institute is among the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience.  The Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, led by Baycrest Health Sciences, helps to accelerate brain health and aging solutions. Together, Baycrest is advancing dementia care for patients locally and globally, discovering better ways to diagnose, prevent and treat dementia and other brain disorders.

Research at Baycrest is part of a continuous cycle, where foundational brain research leads to clinical testing, which leads to innovations supporting healthy aging, which leads to more questions about the fundamental mechanisms of the brain.

Is my memory normal? At-home assessments and iPad apps  

Early detection and prevention of memory problems and cognitive impairment is a major area of focus at Baycrest. Cogniciti, a digital health company led by Baycrest researchers, is empowering adults to assess their memory in the comfort of their own homes. Free, private and clinically researched, the digital brain health assessment has helped more than 60,000 adults answer the question, “Is my memory normal or should I see my doctor?”

Test-takers age 40 and up solve a series of evidence-based puzzles, including shape matching, face and name matching, and a number-letter alternating test. Based on performance, they receive a memory report and may be advised to connect with their family doctor for next steps in care.  Through the brain health assessment, Cogniciti provides researchers access to a rich pool of interested volunteers to help advance memory research.

Another initiative accelerating research into Alzheimer’s and dementia treatments is Baycrest’s work with the Toronto Dementia Research Alliance (TDRA). The Sam and Ida Ross Memory Clinic at Baycrest is the initial pilot site for the newly developed Toronto Cognitive Assessment (TorCA), which utilizes an iPad to capture anonymous patient information and pools it onto a secure, research recruitment database that will be shared amongst TDRA memory clinics. This data will allow scientists to widen their pool of research subjects and easily identify and recruit consenting subjects who match the criteria for their dementia studies.

The TorCA is a sensitive tool that can identify patients at risk of dementia earlier. The assessment not only informs research on detection of memory-related conditions, it also saves costs for the health system and saves patients from having to pursue unnecessary cognitive tests.

Currently, Ontario patients concerned with cognitive impairment receive assessments from specialists. The TorCA iPad app is a game changer, allowing any health care professional to assess patients upfront and determine whether they need to pursue a more lengthy and resource intensive neuropsychology exam. The hope is that this tool will soon be clinically available across TDRA hospital sites within Toronto – and beyond— free of charge.

Getting a glimpse into a brain with dementia

What if you could detect the minute changes that occur in the brain Alzheimer's transcranial stimulationover the course of a person’s life? Researchers at Baycrest are getting the chance to do just that by using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the aging brain, including brains with very early dementia.

Cognitive tests, similar to the Toronto Cognitive Assessment, led Dr. Rosanna Olsen and her team to wonder whether physical differences could be detected in the brains of healthy adults who scored poorly compared to those who scored well.

Her cross-sectional study found that people who scored lower on cognitive tests had a smaller “memory region” of the brain – the same region that is first affected in Alzheimer’s disease. This finding has allowed researchers to use both memory region brain measures and low cognitive test scores as biomarkers (a biological flag) for Alzheimer’s disease, which is a big step forward for the detection and prevention of dementia.

Innovative treatment for older adults with depression and Alzheimer’s disease

Up to 70% of people living with Alzheimer’s disease also suffer from depression, which does not typically respond to standard antidepressant treatments. Dr. Linda Mah and Dr. Jed Meltzer are using a non-invasive procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to reduce symptoms of depression in older adults with Alzheimer’s.

TMS uses magnetic fields to stimulate or inhibit neurons in the brain. Although TMS is approved as a treatment for depression, researchers are aiming to treat other neurologic and psychiatric conditions. Drs. Mah and Meltzer will evaluate the effects of TMS on both mood and memory in Alzheimer’s patients who also suffer from clinical depression. For Alzheimer’s patients, this could mean tapping into brain stimulation to treat their symptoms.

Patient and family care driving research

Research at Baycrest goes both ways. Not only is evidence informing how clinicians, occupational therapists, personal support workers and volunteers care for Baycrest clients, but researchers are also evaluating services to ensure high quality care and support.

Baycrest dementia arts therapyThe Road to Connection program is a great example of this. It’s an arts-based program that brings together caregivers and their partners with dementia for creative sessions and discussion. The program empowers dementia patients to tap into their creative skills while serving as a support group for caregivers.  On top of that, the program gives caregivers an opportunity to celebrate their partners through the art they have created and come away with a shared, meaningful experience.

“We could come back together at the end of the day with something for both of us,” said one caregiver participating in the program. “There aren’t many programs like this one that allow caregivers to meet and share without leaving loved ones behind.”

Baycrest researchers are evaluating the Road to Connection program with the hope of duplicating it across other sites within the Baycrest community and in Ontario.

Baycrest researchers have evaluated and helped redesign volunteer programs to improve resident engagement in Baycrest’s long-term care facility, the Apotex Centre. The Program for Leisure Engagement for Active and Spontaneous Experiences (PLEASE) is an evidence-based model that trains volunteers to work one-on-one and in small groups with residents, when they ask the simple question, “What do you want to do today?” The evaluation found that the PLEASE program enhanced the abilities and personhood of residents – more smiling, talking and engagement. Researchers are also exploring the use of volunteer visits to help older adults with dementia preserve or improve their thinking abilities.

This work helps long-term care homes incorporate cost-effective programs to improve care for residents with dementia and create new roles for volunteers working with older adults.

A century of excellence in complex care, research and training

The world’s population is aging rapidly, and Baycrest has the expertise to deliver proactive solutions. Now in its centennial year, Baycrest has spent 100 years pioneering the science of health and aging.

Baycrest provides compassionate, specialized care, conducts cutting-edge cognitive neuroscience research, commercializes innovative solutions, and trains the next generation of health care professionals with the skills needed to support and respond to the diverse and complex needs of older adults.

As a global leader, Baycrest’s work is contributing to a healthier, wealthier, and smarter future for Ontario and beyond.


Why does health research matter to us? We know that it generates new discoveries, better care, and greater efficiency all while contributing to our knowledge-based economy. That’s how it makes Ontario healthier, wealthier and smarter today. Investing in research hospitals will help us continue building a healthier, wealthier, smarter Ontario. Discover more health research and patient stories by signing up for our monthly newsletter or joining the #onHWS conversation on Twitter.

Group feature photo was taken during CAHO’s Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter Field Trip to Baycrest Health Sciences. Read our other Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter Field Trips here.


Patients + Research: Joan Baillie

Patients + Research is a platform for patients to discuss their relationship and experience with the research that leads to new cures, cares and treatments.

Patients + Research: Joan Baillie

Meet Joan

Three years ago, Joan Baillie was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (a condition that is likely to develop into dementia). She participated in a brain rehabilitation research study at Baycrest Health Sciences led by Rotman Research Institute senior scientist, Dr. Brian Levine, and learned strategies to improve focus and complete everyday tasks through his Goal Management Training intervention. Since her diagnosis, Joan continues to function well and enjoy life.

Joan Baillie Baycrest Research Toronto

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

More than 20 years ago, I had a mini stroke (also known as a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), a condition when the brain’s blood flow is temporarily blocked) and made a full recovery. After I left my car running with the keys inside for two hours, I visited my family doctor about memory concerns. My doctor diagnosed me with Mild Cognitive Impairment and while researching the condition, I read that it could lead to dementia.

A year after my diagnosis, I saw an advertisement about a research study taking place at Baycrest. They were looking for people who experienced a mini stroke or TIA and could benefit from cognitive rehabilitation. I was accepted into the study which would help doctors learn more about the brain and the cognitive changes that may occur with a stroke or mini strokes. The hope is that this will help doctors learn how to best treat those with cognitive problems. This research helped me better understand my memory problems and handle changes that are taking place in my brain.

Short-term memory loss always remains a concern and I am very aware of the signs of dementia.

Why does health research matter to you?

The more the doctors know, the more they can do for you. It’s important that doctors have more knowledge because we are an aging population that is living longer.

The brain scans taken at the start of the study showed that I might have experienced many mini strokes which potentially led to my memory loss. With Dr. Brian Levine’s Goal Management Training, I learned many strategies to help with focus and memory and these allow me to live my life more productively.

How does health research contribute to a healthier Ontario?

I believe without health research we would still be contracting polio, dying from diabetes and not living our lives fully due to brain limitations. Every advance in medicine is the result of research. If research can help find a reliable treatment for those suffering from dementia and/or Alzheimer’s, or even help everyone live their lives to the fullest, then it is absolutely necessary for this research to take place.

The knowledge that is gained from health research will contribute to the future care and treatment of patients with similar problems. It will help medical professionals look after their patients in more productive and understanding ways. It will ultimately save the government many dollars as they will better understand what is needed to serve people who live with dementia or similar conditions. We are approaching a crisis stage because hospitals, nursing homes and the general public are struggling to accommodate those who are living with these diseases.

How can patients and families support, improve or empower health research?

The public should understand that it research is necessary if there is going to be any improvement in the care of people in the future. People should make themselves available for research in any area for which they are experiencing issues. It takes some of your time, but the results will benefit so many patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s. When I told people I was involved in a research study, they congratulated me for doing something positive. We can all do that by sharing our experiences and encouraging other people to become involved in research projects.


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Add Your Voice

Want to add your voice to the Patients + Research blog series? Email or call Elise Bradt at, 416-205-1469, or direct message or tweet at us on Twitter at @CAHOhospitals.

Read more Patients + Research posts and share your own insights on Twitter with the hashtag #onHWS. To learn more about how health research makes Ontario healthier, wealthier and smarter, visit our impact page, and check out our other blog posts and videos.

Health & Community Leaders Talk: Garry Foster

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

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.

RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT: Baycrest Health Sciences

Baycrest Clinicians and Researchers Team Up to Study Mindfulness Training for Older Adults

RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT: Baycrest Health Sciences

Mindfulness is a term that’s used a lot, often in lifestyle magazines and articles about coping with the stresses of modern life. But mindfulness is more than just a buzzword or a fad. Scientific research has established that mindfulness training programs can provide psychological and physical benefits.

Continue reading “RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT: Baycrest Health Sciences”