Neuro researchers receive more than $3.6M in CIHR funding

Published: 14 August 2023



Projects will discover disease genetics, explain cognition/memory formation, improve surgical accuracy and post-concussion diagnosis

Five Neuro-led projects were awarded grants by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) this year as part of its spring funding, totaling more than $3.6M. These projects aims to better understand late-onset ataxia, improve outcomes for spinal surgery patients, explain the formation of spatial cognition and memory, identify persistent post concussion syndrome after brain injury, and create a tool to switch off the effects of disease-causing genes.  


Bernard BraisCharacterizing a newly discovered ataxia - $367,200 

Patients with late-onset cerebellar ataxias (LOCA) develop a slowly progressive cerebellar syndrome at an average age of 59 years, with episodic manifestations of double vision, nystagmus, vertigo, dysarthria, and gait ataxia in 46 per cent of cases. Using a multidisciplinary approach, this project will rely on a Canadian and international collaboration to better understand LOCA. It will allow a large group of Canadians to get a genetic diagnosis for their late-onset ataxia, putting an end to their diagnostic odyssey. It will also help support therapy development. This study is significant as it demonstrates the importance of genetic research in identifying the basis behind the variability of late-onset neurodegenerative diseases that influence the loss of normal gait in ageing. 


An estimated 2000-3700 Canadian cancer patients have spine surgery each year to decrease pressure and relieve symptoms due to the tumors or metastases, which can include severe pain, weakness, sensory problems, bowel or bladder dysfunction. While commercial surgical navigation systems help guide the surgeon, they have limited accuracy which can lead to errors and delays in surgery. The goal of this project is to improve outcome for these patients. 

This project will combine intra-operative ultrasound with augmented reality to improve surgical accuracy and reduce delays. It will do this by achieving sub-millimetre accuracy to provide 'Superman X-ray vision' of critical, but hidden, structures for neuronavigation during surgery. These augmented views will be presented in the microscope, a tablet display or headset for the surgeon, and on a large monitor for the surgical team to follow and anticipate the next surgical steps. 


Better understanding of deep brain circuits involved in memory and navigation is critical to help people affected by stroke, neurodegeneration and other forms of brain damage. To unravel processes for spatial cognition and memory formation, this project will use precise recording technologies to monitor subcortical neuronal populations in freely moving mice to elucidate how the head-direction signal is processed during wakefulness and sleep. To directly test the contribution of these populations, scientists will also use recently developed genetic tools, making it possible to manipulate brain activity. This project will shed light on some of the most fundamental and evolutionally old networks supporting spatial cognition and memory formation and will open avenues for the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic strategies. 


Early identification of patients at risk of persistent post concussion syndrome after mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) is crucial but challenging. Research from Ptito’s lab has consistently demonstrated that concussed athletes display an abnormal level of brain activation in the prefrontal regions, which is correlated with memory impairments. This aberrant brain activation can be predictive of symptom resolution, but it remains unclear what its mechanism is. Using novel magnetic resonance imaging methods, this project will assess changes in brain anatomy and function in university athletes who have suffered mild TBI or concussion and link these changes to their post-concussive symptoms. It will also follow mTBI patients over time to identify neuroimaging features associated with persistent post concussion syndrome. 

Over 40 diseases, including incurable and fatal neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, are caused by the expansion of repetitive sequences in the human genome. Beyond a certain size, these expansions cause problems in the cells and the body, leading to disease. These diseases are ingrained in the individual’s DNA, making it impossible to get rid of the source. This project aims to use artificial intelligence to design an RNA molecule that will be switched on” only in presence of repeats exceeding the healthy number. When switched on, this molecule will act as a molecular scissor that will cleave the product of the disease-causing gene, leaving only the healthy version intact.

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