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Michael Silverman

Biologist Michael Silverman (centre) in his lab’s tissue-culture facility with researchers Diana Hunter, an MBB student (left) and biology student Amrita Bassan.

Neuroscience: Exploring the brain’s highways

April 8, 2010

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The highways that SFU biologist Michael Silverman travels aren’t found on any Google map. They’re the microscopic transport pathways that allow "goods and services" to travel inside brain cells.

Silverman and his research team are investigating how disruptions along these cellular highways may play a critical role in the development of Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases, thanks to a recent $480,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

He’s part of a diverse group of SFU academics—in fields ranging from biology, psychology and kinesiology to health sciences and engineering science—who are focused on teaching and research in the field of neuroscience.

These researchers have joined forces to create SFU’s new Graduate Certificate in Neuroscience to provide a common thread of study for grad students.

Graduate certificate program offers neuro studies roadmap

There’s a wealth of brainpower studying the power of the brain in labs and classrooms throughout SFU. This has led several faculty members with ties to neuroscience-related teaching and research to create a new program to pool those resources for the benefit of graduate students.

The Graduate Certificate in Neuroscience will be offered for the first time in the fall 2010 semester.

"The certificate is meant to showcase our strength in neuroscience through a course of study for graduate students and increase collaborative opportunities among faculty," says biologist Michael Silverman.

He’s one of three faculty members on the program’s steering committee, along with neuroscientists Tony Herdman (psychology) and Charles Krieger (biomedical physiology and kinesiology).

The program is designed to give graduate students a strong foothold in the field, fostering interest in everything from developmental neuroscience to brain imaging and disease diagnostics.

Courses and research opportunities will expose graduate students to the broad spectrum of neuroscience-themed courses and research being conducted throughout SFU.

"Neuroscience is much more technical and specialized in some ways than other disciplines—and it should be," notes SFU evolutionary biologist Bernard Crespi, one of a few dozen researchers involved. Crespi made international headlines with his theory that schizophrenia and autism are diametric or opposite conditions based on genes.

"The human brain is probably the most complicated structure in the universe, with trillions of connections and hundreds of different types of connections, just fantastically complicated."

"We all want to better understand the human brain, and we all approach it from different perspectives," says Urs Ribary. He leads SFU’s new Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, which aims to be part of a global strategy on brain-imaging research and advanced research on the developing brain, cognitive disabilities and neurological and mental disorders.

Ribary, who holds the B.C. LEEF Leadership Chair in cognitive neuroscience for children’s health, has spent three decades researching functional connectivity dynamics in the brain. He believes the piecing together of a diagnostic map of the brain is moving closer to reality.

That has several SFU researchers pushing themselves and technology, including the magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain-imaging facility housed at Burnaby’s Down Syndrome Research Foundation, to delve deeper into studies of brain development and function.

Neuro trailblazers

Here is a sample of the neuroscience research underway at SFU:

Anthony Herdman
Anthony Herdman directs the Human Brain Research Lab at SFU. A Michael Smith scholar, he focuses on understanding brain functions that underlie many psychological phenomena involved in auditory and visual perceptions, attention, and memory.

Herdman uses behavioural, eye-tracking, and electrophysiological (EEG & MEG) measures to study fundamental principles of these systems and how they develop in children.

He’s fascinated by how a brain communicates across multiple dimensions (space, time, and frequency) and how that communication is altered by experience as the brain develops its perceptual and cognitive abilities.

Takako Niikura
Health scientist and neurological researcher Takako Niikura is looking beyond what currently approved drugs for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) do to enhance cognitive function and improve quality of life. She studies the pathological and physiological mechanisms of neuro-degeneration and neuro-protection in aging-related disorders such as AD. She’s currently examining a newly found peptide called Humanin, which has shown the capacity to suppress AD-related nerve cell death and improve cognitive function.

Gordon Rintoul
Biologist Gordon Rintoul researches mitochondria, often described as the ‘powerhouses’ of cells as they provide energy for cellular processes. "In brain cells, mitochondria are surprisingly dynamic structures. They fuse, divide and move rapidly along the long processes of neurons."

Rintoul examines the mechanisms and regulation of ‘mitochondrial dynamics’ in neurons. He uses fluorescent probes to specifically label mitochondria so that researchers can use fluorescence microscopy to monitor their dynamics in live cells.

He is interested in how compromising the dynamic processes of mitochondria may contribute to the death of neurons in diseases such as stroke and Parkinson’s.

Researchers in Ralph Mistlberger’s chronobiology lab study sleep and biological rhythms in mammals, with a special emphasis on the neural basis of circadian, or daily, rhythms. His team focuses on the circadian "clocks" in the brain that regulate daily rhythms and is working to identify the circuitry by which behavioral and environmental stimuli alter the timing of these clocks. The lab’s research on how brain functions are affected by sleep and circadian disruptions found that 72 hours of partial sleep deprivation can suppress the ongoing production of new neurons in a brain region important for learning and memory.

In engineering science professor Faisal Beg’s lab, researchers are taking precise measurements of the shape of brain structures from magnetic resonance images to identify the patterns of change that occur in healthy brains compared to those with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Using these patterns, they are developing methods to assist in accurately diagnosing AD, especially in the early stages.

Biologist Harald Hutter’s lab is investigating how neural circuits form in the embryo. In a bid to learn more about how neurons get wired, his research team is studying the genes of tiny worms known as C. elegans.

"A fundamental understanding at the molecular level of how the brain gets wired has implications for a growing number of neurological conditions in humans," he says.

Charles Krieger, a biomedical physiologist and kinesiologist, is interested in the treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurogenerative disease also called Lou Gehrig’s. His research examines how bone marrow-derived cells (BMDCs) in an animal model of ALS could potentially be involved or used in the treatment of ALS.

A key question is why nerve cells are progressively lost as a result of the fatal disease. His research focuses on the role BMDCs could play in increasing neuronal survival. Krieger is also studying proteins at the nerve-muscle junction and their involvement in ALS.

For further information: www.sfuneuroscience.ca

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Anastasia Kuzmin

It is interesting that the research grant that Dr. Silverman recieved was for a project that was conducted by a graduate student from Dr. S�rgio T. Ferreiras lab in Brasil.

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