Brain Canada program supports pair starting in Parkinson’s research

Grants to scientists working in alpha-synuclein clumping, deep-brain stimulation

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by Steve Bryson, PhD |

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Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research, a Brain Canada program, has awarded two early-career scientists CA$100,000 (about $74,180) each in grants to advance research projects into Parkinson’s disease.

Maria Ioannou, PhD, an assistant professor of physiology at the University of Alberta, is exploring alpha-synuclein protein clumping, a hallmark feature of Parkinson’s, and how it spreads between nerve cells. Milad Lankarany, PhD, a scientist at the Krembil Research Institute-University Health Network, will investigate how deep-brain stimulation (DBS), a Parkinson’s treatment, affects information processing in the brain.

“Researchers who have recently completed their training and have just begun their careers are uniquely positioned to develop groundbreaking brain research initiatives,” Viviane Poupon, PhD, president and CEO of Brain Canada, said in a press release.

“Brain Canada is thrilled to see how our signature Future Leaders program has grown, enabling us to provide increased support to a growing number of researchers during the pivotal stage of their careers,” Poupon said.

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Parkinson’s is characterized by the dysfunction and death of nerve cells, or neurons, resulting in the onset of hallmark motor symptoms. It is thought that alpha-synuclein clumping, which has been shown to spread from one nerve cell to the next, contributes to nerve cell loss.

Another feature of the neurodegenerative condition is defects in the metabolism of fat-like lipids, leading to the buildup of a lipid called glucosylceramide.

Ioannou’s group previously discovered that glucosylceramide buildup leads to the formation and the release of tiny membrane-bound vesicles, or sacs, from nerve cells. This suggests these vesicles may contain alpha-synuclein and help spread the toxic protein to neighboring cells.

Using its grant, the team will investigate if these vesicles contain toxic alpha-synuclein, whether more vesicles form in Parkinson’s-affected neurons, and if their formation can be prevented by therapeutically targeting lipid metabolism pathways.

Real-time advanced microscopy will track these vesicles in mice and in cells derived from Parkinson’s patients. An ultimate goal is to block vesicle formation, potentially preventing the disease from spreading to new brain regions.

DBS is a surgical treatment for people with Parkinson’s that involves implanting a device to stimulate selective brain regions with electrical impulses. Despite its shown usefulness, little is known about how DBS influences information processing in the brain.

Lankarany’s lab will develop computational methods and record neural activities observed in different brain regions of Parkinson’s patients to determine how they are linked together. The team aims to establish an understanding of DBS-modulated information processing at a network level.

The Brain Canada program received 123 eligible letters of intent last year from 40 research institutions across Canada. Following a peer review by 46 neuroscientists, 64 applicants, all working in various neuroscience fields, were invited to submit grant applications. After a second review round, 28 researchers in early professional stages were awarded a CA$100,000 grant to support their continuing work, for a total of $2.8 million in grants.

Now in its fourth year, the program has awarded 88 promising early-career scientists funding needed to accelerate research aiming to improve an understanding of nervous system function and dysfunction, and its impact on health. The 28 grants issued this year represent a 30% increase from previous years.

Supported by the Canada Brain Research Fund and a lead gift from the Azrieli Foundation, this year’s program has received additional funding from the Erika Legacy Foundation, the Arrell Family Foundation, the Segal Foundation, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

“Brain Canada is the leading foundation dedicated to advancing neuroscience in this country,” said Naomi Azrieli, Brain Canada chair. “The Future Leaders program not only empowers the next generation of leaders with mentorship, resources, and collaboration, but also fosters a vibrant community of forward-thinkers who will shape the future of neuroscience.”