Research Themes

HBHL’s strategic research priorities are anchored to neuroinformatics, the development and use of analytical tools and computational models that can combine neuroscience data across all scales and levels to better understand the brain in health and disease. Neuroinformatics tools can acquire, store, share, publish, analyze, model, visualize or simulate neuroscience data. Neuroinformatics is central to HBHL’s four Research Themes: 

Theme 1: Neuroinformatics and Computational Modelling

Leader: Blake Richards
Associate Leader: Boris Bernhardt

Theme 1 combines big data and neuroscience to explore the intricacies of the brain using advanced computational strategies, such as deep learning and network modelling. The general analytical techniques developed in this theme are used in clinical, human, and basic neuroscience, and are applied across the rest of HBHL’s research efforts. Theme 1 involves a close interaction of research groups with expertise in neuroscience, computer science, clinical research and social science.

Research Priorities:

  • Grow HBHL’s NeuroHub, a web-based platform for brain research, which provides access to powerful computational tools for data processing and streamlined systems for secure storage and sharing of multi-disciplinary data
  • Develop and deploy new analytical methods that simultaneously take into account multiple dimensions, multiple modalities, and multiple scales
  • Provide new software platforms for curation, integration and analysis of multimodal data
  • Develop prediction-based analytic frameworks to understand and predict individual differences in learning and performance, as well as disease vulnerability and progression
  • Develop analytic methods and strategies as part of a common analytic framework that directly benefits other HBHL Research Themes
  • Encourage contribution to the principles of Open Science recently adopted by the Montreal Neurological Institute, including sharing of data, methods and open access to published work

Theme 2: Mechanistic Models of Neurodegenerative Disorders

Leader: Sylvia Villeneuve
Associate Leader: Jean-Francois Poulin

The goal of Theme 2 is to develop research programs that will focus on understanding, detecting, diagnosing, measuring, modelling and treating human neurodegenerative diseases. Neurodegenerative diseases are a heterogeneous group of disorders that progressively affect the brain structure and function, and typically include diseases of adulthood and old age (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). However, they may also include diseases of early life (e.g. leukodystrophies, ataxias). Neurodegenerative aspects of diseases not typically considered primarily degenerative, such as schizophrenia, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, may also be considered under Theme 2.

Research Priorities:

  • Early diagnosis, detection of disease progression and response to therapy
  • Brain connectivity, synaptic, mitochondrial and lysosomal dysfunction, autophagy
  • Genetically unique individuals or commonalities across disease categories; study of rare diseases
  • Neuroengineering (e.g. microfluidics and scaffolds for neural cell and tissue growth, neural organoids, brain/neuron: machine interfaces, wearable and implantable devices)
  • Therapeutics, including biomarkers development, gene editing (CRISPR), drug screening, risk factor identification and modification, personalized medicine
  • Gene-environment interactions as causes of neurodegenerative disease
  • Enrollment and characterization of patient cohorts, with an emphasis on data sharing and Open Science

Theme 3: Applied Cognitive Neuroscience of Brain Plasticity

Leader: Dr. Madeleine Sharp
Associate Leader: Nathan Spreng

The brain is a highly dynamic organ. Theme 3 focuses on understanding how the brain is changed by experience, at timescales ranging from milliseconds, to minutes, to the whole lifespan from childhood to old age. Research includes the basic science of the mechanisms underlying brain plasticity, as well as how these mechanisms may go awry in disease states, contribute to resilience and recovery in response to brain disorders, and be harnessed to improve education and human performance. Mechanisms of interest range from genes to socio-cultural influences. Theme 3 emphasizes plasticity within the context of human cognitive neuroscience (i.e. the neural basis of human thought and behaviour). Research supported will focus on two principal axes: Learning and Performance and Resilience.

Research Priorities:

  • Characterize the neural changes associated with plasticity, whether adaptive or maladaptive, using multi-modal and interdisciplinary approaches
  • Improve cognitive, perceptual or motor performance in healthy individuals, including ageing or other vulnerable populations and in educational or workplace settings
  • Promote recovery or protect against decline from neural dysfunction, damage, sensory loss, or the impacts of behavioural and mental health disorders
  • Promote resilience to prevent or delay functional impairment from disease or ageing
  • Develop tools, interventions, software, and devices to optimize brain plasticity across the lifespan in clinical, educational and occupational settings

Theme 4: Population Neuroscience and Brain Health

Leader: Martin Lepage
Associate Leader: Dr. Jai Shah

A clear understanding of brain health on an individual level requires that studies occur within frameworks that include cultural influences and context. Research conducted under Theme 4 applies this transactional framework to identify the basic mechanisms of vulnerability, resilience and responsiveness to environments and treatments. For example, Theme 4 aims to translate neuroscience findings to clinical practice for the ethnically and culturally diverse population of Canada. Theme 4 also tackles challenges of evaluating the short- vs. long-term impact of mental illness and collecting data to estimate the economic costs of mental illness in Canada. Clarification of the interplay between culture and context will allow for better prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness to improve brain health in the general public.

Research Priorities:

  • Modifiable risk factors: what each individual can change in order to be more resilient to mental illness, i.e. lifestyle habits, tools for prevention, etc.
  • Threshold for intervention: who/which population would benefit from a mental health intervention, i.e. level of non-modifiable risk (e.g. genetic, socio-economic) when non-intervention becomes detrimental
  • Timing of intervention: when to intervene, i.e. before birth, infancy, puberty, elderly
  • Practice & Policy: how to assess and ensure that knowledge translation tools are used in daily clinical practice and policy-making
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