A new bio-bank and optogenetics facilities are among the expansions planned for CAMH, thanks to a new fund awarded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).
“With the pace of discovery so rapidly accelerating in neuroscience research, keeping up with advances in technology and techniques is essential,” said Dr. Bruce G. Pollock, Vice President of Research. “With this new funding, we’re both building on CFI’s past investment into CAMH and moving into new directions.”
The $2.8 million from CFI, announced on January 15, will be matched by the Ontario government. The funds will be used for infrastructure and facilities within the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute at CAMH. They will also support enhancements to CAMH’s Research Imaging Centre, which significantly expanded due to a previous CFI fund, and the new Temerty Centre for Therapeutic Brain Intervention. Bio-bank with University Health Network
The new bio-bank initiative will house brain, liver and blood samples. These tissues and cells are a rich source of information. They can be used to study genetic variations, protein levels, cell receptor interactions and other biological factors. These factors are known as “biomarkers” when they can be connected to understanding mental illness or its treatment.
“With access to this bio-bank, we can identify biomarkers that may be used to understand the mechanisms or course of illness, help diagnose illnesses, develop new therapies or improve responses to existing treatments,” said Dr. Benoit Mulsant, CAMH Physician-in-Chief.
CAMH’s bio-bank is unique in several ways. For the study of mental illness, brain banks often obtain samples from people who died by suicide, through coroners. The CAMH bio-bank will include samples from CAMH research participants, who consent to donate small amounts of brain or liver tissue after their natural death.
“This is really how medicine developed in the 1800s, when you could observe a symptom in a person, such as an abnormal heartbeat, and only after examining the person’s heart after death, see what was wrong with it,” Dr. Mulsant explained.
With today’s sophisticated tools, much more than symptoms are measured. Results from cognitive tests and brain scans taken during studies, combined with donated tissue samples, will provide a comprehensive source of information to researchers.
The bio-bank is a shared initiative with the University Health Network, which has expertise and facilities in pathology to acquire tissues, as well as an existing brain bank for neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. With a centralized computer database, the CAMH bio-bank will also incorporate information from samples that scientists have acquired from past research.Optogenetics allows precise cell control
Using laser light to activate specific brain cells holds the potential to understand and treat numerous conditions involving the brain. This technique, known as optogenetics, was invented in 2005 and is being used increasingly to understand the workings of the brain. CAMH researchers will now be able to apply optogenetics to study depression and addiction.
It’s already known that stimulating neurons in certain parts of the brain can lead to antidepressant-like effects. “We’re currently studying deep brain stimulation, which uses electrical currents to activate neurons,” said CAMH Senior Scientist Dr. Nobrega. “But it stimulates all types of neurotransmitters in the region, which could include glutamate, acetylcholine or others. Optogenetics will enable us to study specific neurotransmitters to determine which ones are responsible for this effect.”
The precision of optogenetics relies on genetic engineering and laser technology. In essence, a light-sensitive protein from algae is transported into specific neurons, making them respond to light as well. By using laser light, it causes these neurons to fire, and researchers can then examine the changes in behaviour that result.
“It’s a potent tool, and a refinement of the techniques we are currently using,” said Dr. Nobrega.