UBC neuroscientists receive $100,000 each to fund research

Research in neuroscience will benefit from the six-figure grants awarded to two of UBC’s leading scientists.

In fall 2021, the Brain Canada Foundation announced that Dr. Shannon Kolind, an associate professor in the department of medicine’s neurology division, and Dr. Tamara Vanderwal, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry, were among the recipients of the 2020 Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research award and were each granted $100,000 to support their research endeavours. The Ubyssey sat down with the winners to learn more about the innovation at the heart of their research.

Damn, this data is Hyperfine

Kolind’s research focuses on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and how MRI scanners can be programmed to provide better, “more informative” images.

MRI scanners use magnetic fields to generate images and generally come in high-field and low-field strength varieties, depending on the strength of the magnetic field applied. According to Kolind, higher-magnetic-field MRI scanners are popular as they provide “more signal from the images.” In other words, they provide a better signal-to-noise ratio, meaning that the desired signal is stronger than the level of background noise. This makes for faster scanning and higher resolution images.

However, Kolind explained that high fields require large, expensive and complicated machines that need trained personnel for operation. These limitations have resulted in a movement towards low-field scanners as a promising alternative, with innovative low-field technology currently being developed.

“This is really exciting,” said Kolind. “People have wanted to do this for a while, but only over the last few years, some of the advancements have made it possible.”

One recent innovation was spearheaded by the American company Hyperfine as it developed a portable MRI scanner that uses very low magnetic fields to create images of the brain that can be used in a clinical setting.

Kolind hopes to use her award to fund the development of this scanner as an imaging tool for multiple sclerosis (MS) — a neurodegenerative disorder of the central nervous system where the body’s immune system attacks the protective, insulating layer of neurons. Her upcoming research will centre on testing the scanner’s capability to perform basic MS imaging tasks and, later on, more advanced imaging.

Long-term, the scanner has the potential to be applicable in illnesses beyond MS, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, according to Kolind.

“The physics are fun, because we’re used to working at higher magnetic fields, and the physics are different at lower fields,” she said. “So we get to kind of start from basics again in thinking about how to approach the imaging.”

The goal is that this new tool will benefit individuals diagnosed with MS who have limited access to clinics with MRIs, often due to expense or inconvenience, Kolind explained. Additionally, individuals unable to utilize high-field scanners may be able to use low-field ones.

According to Kolind, since patients in the later stages of MS can struggle with limited mobility and may be less likely to visit clinics for scans, knowledge regarding the progression of the disease is lacking. Thus, these new, innovative tools may help to support routine imaging for patients while also helping researchers address new questions.

For Kolind, witnessing the scanner’s utility for the first time with her team was a pivotal moment.

“I think it was very eye-opening to us that the day that the scanner arrived [we] were able to start scanning volunteers that same day and that was just kind of extraordinary … just the immediate utility of it.”

“I think it was kind of almost an existential moment … this is just so accessible. We can take this [scanner] to whoever needs it.”

IMAX meets MRI

Vanderwal’s research also focuses on neuroimaging, with an emphasis on detecting functional differences in the brains of children with psychiatric disorders.

While most doctors can order tests to help determine the cause of a child’s illness, child psychiatrists are limited in that there are no biologically-based tests to reveal the goings-on of their young patient’s brain, explained Vanderwal.

“It’d be great if we had some [tests and diagnostic tools] that we could use as psychiatrists when we see kids,” she said.

She went on to explain that the “main overarching goal” is to obtain biomarkers — indicators of a biological process that can help physicians figure out how to best provide care. Often, they are obtained through the application of neuroimaging tools, like functional MRI (fMRI).

fMRI scans are useful to researchers as they detect changes in blood flow in the brain, which can reveal the relative activity of distinct brain regions over time. Though the use of fMRI scans is a sophisticated approach, Vanderwal explained that neuroimaging research involving children is difficult because they naturally move and wiggle during scans. Scientifically, this provides poor quality data and little of it. To help children keep still, Vanderwal’s lab uses movies in the scanner — resulting in more, better quality data.

But using movies provides research avenues beyond keeping children still. Vanderwal said that movies “drive the brain,” providing an opportunity “to look at brain function while the kids are thinking and processing and looking and listening and doing all of these real-life things.” Her lab is currently collecting pilot data to test new ways of using these scans in a healthy population of children.

Vanderwal explained two approaches: the first involves showing any arbitrary movie to drive brain function, and the second involves showing a movie to target a specific cognitive process, such as a particular mood. This project will mix both approaches, with the intent of maximizing engagement and entrancing children for extended time periods.

The project will also allow testing of a procedure called “hyperalignment.” Typical fMRI involves aligning individual brain scans from different participants in a process called “alignment,” according to Vanderwal.

This is an issue, Vanderwal explained, because there are “little individual differences” in where adults functionally map information in the brain. Therefore, the alignment of data based on structural information may not always be indicative of the brain’s actual functional activity. With functional activity being the crux of the analysis, this issue can result in suboptimal data in adults, while in children this limitation is even more relevant due to the nature of their developing brains.

To overcome this limitation, Vanderwal’s lab plans to align brain scans of children via functional signals — a process called “hyperalignment” — and determine if this improves fMRI data for kids. Previous studies in adults show that hyperalignment seemingly captures brain function better, such as a 2020 review published in eLife but, according to Vanderwal, research in kids is limited.

Finally, Vanderwal has set her sights on exploring the movie segments that allow for the best alignment. Less useful segments could then be deleted to optimize the movie-watching.

Vanderwal’s research is a testament to building upon previously established ideas and applying “incrementalism” in her approach. She highlighted that her team started by applying movies as a tool to help keep kids still in the fMRI and obtain better data, which then evolved into exploring how movies “drive” the brain and its processes. Now, Vanderwal’s lab is exploring the use of these movies as a tool to improve alignment, making it a sort of “triple-dip in one run,” she said.

“We have to make progress in these small incremental steps,” she said. “We’re trying to just incrementally improve the quality of each study. And so the hope is that if we optimize all of these little increments, that we’ll be able to discover and see stuff that we haven’t before.”

“Don’t underestimate the importance of incrementalism, but also think big.”