New tool aids brain research

October 07, 2004, vol. 31, no. 3
By Marianne Meadahl

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It looks like an oversized hair dryer.

But the machine at the heart of the Down Syndrome Research Foundation's (DSRF) new magnetoencephalography neuroscience unit promises to take research in developmental brain behavior to a higher level.

The technology, an Omega 151 channel magnetoencephalography system (known as MEG) was installed in the foundation's Burnaby research facility over the summer. The $2.8 million diagnostic centre - the only MEG research facility in Western Canada - was officially opened Sept. 10.

“The MEG has amazing potential for research into brain development,” says foundation executive director Josephine Mills. “It will help our organization improve diagnostic and treatment options in several medical areas involving brain function and behavioral development.”

The MEG provides precise information about the location of brain function for both diagnostic purposes and treatment of Down syndrome and other brain disorders. It is housed in a magnetically shielded room to protect the sensitive measurements of magnetism within the brain when participants perform specific tasks.

The MEG system will be used by researchers from SFU, including Dan Weeks, who specializes in Down syndrome research, and Hal Weinberg, a brain behavior researcher, as well as those from other leading education and health care facilities, targeting research programs designed to help individuals with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities. Interest in the centre is also growing among international researchers, many of whom will gather in Vancouver for the World Down Syndrome Congress in August 2006.

Mills helped found the DSRF in 1995 with a group of parents and professionals, with support from SFU. The foundation moved into its present site two years ago, functioning as both a research, educational and clinical service facility, and as a growing resource centre for Down syndrome families.

The MEG acquisition follows the announcement in July of a new chair at SFU in cognitive neuroscience that will focus on early childhood health and development. Its aim is to improve life for children with developmental challenges and their families. Weeks, who is also psychology chair, says research shows that intervention for those with cognitive and developmental challenges needs to be tailored to each individual. The provincial Leading Edge Endowment Fund (LEEF) has given approval in principle to fund the chair.

The MEG, which is expected to play a role in research created through the new chair, was acquired largely through donations from a small group of Vancouver-based philanthropists, along with funding from SFU and government. It was built and installed by VSM Med Tech, a Coquitlam company which grew out of SFU's first spin-off company, CTF Systems.

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