REVOLUTIONIZING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE BRAIN

“Not only has my research been revolutionized by the generous support from the Irving Ludmer Family Foundation – an awful lot of neuroscience research at McGill has been affected,” says Dr. Alan Evans, a James McGill Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Psychiatry, and Biomedical Engineering.

“We are creating an interface between neuroscience and mathematics, computer science and information technologies. This allows us to analyze the brain in ways that are common to mathematicians and physical scientists. In the process, we’re moving neuroscience out of the realm of less precise clinical language and into quantitative descriptions of brain circuitry and their genetic determinants. We aim to revolutionize how people think about the brain.”

The source of this revolution is a $4.5 million gift from the Irving Ludmer Family Foundation to create the Ludmer Center for Neuroinformatics and Mental Health, a virtual focal point bringing Evans’ brain imaging lab at The Neuro together with the labs of Dr. Michael Meaney, an epigenetics researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, and Dr. Celia Greenwood, a statistical geneticist at the Lady Davis Institute, the research arm of the Jewish General Hospital.

“Binding these three very different labs within a common vision means that we can capture an incredible amount of information about the relationship between genotype and phenotypes for neurological diseases and other conditions,” says Evans.

While the genotype refers to all of an individual’s genes, the phenotype refers to the observable characteristics which arise from that genotype, such as an individual’s brain structure or function, or their performance on tests of behaviour, such as memory or attention. The Ludmer Center’s goal is to be able to model the complexity of the human brain in all its dimensions – with data from as many sources as possible – with the objective of understanding precisely how the brain works, and how diseases can disrupt its workings.

“Traditional neurology and psychiatry research often goes from the gene to the clinical symptoms without necessarily understanding anything about the circuits or mechanisms in between. The Ludmer Center allows us to develop a vision which is not psychiatry, nor neurology, nor mathematics nor computer science, but all of these,” says Evans. “It is a new engine enabling us to combine a tsunami of different kinds of data and to place it all into a common analytic framework. It’s innovative and ground-breaking.”

With close to 55 people, split between scientific researchers and IT, Evans’ lab alone is similar to a small company. And while the Ludmer Center formally embraces only the labs of Evans, Meaney and Greenwood, dozens of other researchers across McGill are informally connected to its work, seizing the opportunity to make use of the Center’s ideas, physical resources and lab members.