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Opinion: B.C. Is Fast Becoming Neuroscience Centre of Excellence for Canada

By August 30, 2017No Comments

It’s easy to argue that our brains are our most important resource. One in three Canadians will have to deal with a brain, nervous-system or spinal-cord disorder in their lifetime, according to the Canadian Association for Neuroscience.

Our region, and Canada in general, is among the global leaders studying neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, brain injury and concussion. There are also major advances being made in mental-health conditions such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and addiction.

Over the past five years B.C. has fast become a global force for innovation in the area of brain health. Our province is leading networks of excellence to improve aging through technology, healthy brain development, mental health and addiction, and advanced brain evaluation and imaging technologies.

With solid roots in foundational science, B.C. has quickly grown its translational and innovation capabilities that have now attracted some of the world’s top minds and partners. We are quickly becoming the Silicon Valley for health technology.

World-renowned scientists and celebrities routinely come through our province seeking our brain innovations. Toronto’s Dr. Sandra Black, among the world’s top neuroscientists leading how we understand dementia and stroke, was recently here as part of a long-standing collaboration in brain-imaging. Well-known celebrity Montel Williams, who has successfully managed multiple sclerosis, was recently here to help promote the development of better treatments for MS, brain injury and other brain conditions.

In 2012, I was recruited as the B.C. leadership chair in Multimodal Technologies in Healthcare at Simon Fraser University, after having moved all across Canada as a clinical neuroscientist, researcher and innovator. This was through vital support from the B.C. Innovation Council, Surrey Memorial Hospital Foundation and Fraser Health.

The vision was to make an impact in brain health through technology innovation. At the time, we collectively committed to make a real world difference in B.C.’s health-technology innovation landscape, starting with Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Health Sciences and Innovation strategy, which then led to the co-creation of Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard and, subsequently, the Health and Technology District directly across from Surrey Memorial Hospital.

For concrete, real-world signs of health-technology success, one need look no further than B.C.’s recent quantum leap in the adoption of advanced medical brain-imaging technologies, like magnetic-resonance imaging.

A provincial network has grown out of the University of B.C., Children’s Hospital and SFU. This network supports core brain-imaging infrastructure in state-of-the-art MRI along with high-tech instruments such as positron-emission tomography and magnetoencephalography.

This fall, SFU will open the new ImageTech Laboratory, a state-of-the-art lab embedded within Surrey Memorial Hospital that hosts a high-field 3T MRI and a high-density 275-channel MEG. Surrey’s ImageTech Lab will become the first of its kind in Western Canada to provide the critical combination of these multimillion-dollar advanced technologies to non-invasively monitor a person’s brain activities.

The ImageTech Lab’s MRI and MEG means that our citizens will no longer have to travel out of province to access this level of advanced brain-imaging technology. Similar developments are now also planned and coming for other key partners.

Imagine a brain as the high-performance engine in a Formula One race car. Even the slightest impact — like a concussion — can be enough to disrupt its outputs and performance that we rely on daily.

Until now, individuals with epilepsy needing access to MEG to better characterize their seizure activities had to travel to Toronto, Montreal or Halifax. In spite of B.C. producing world-leading MEG technology, our region has struggled to find ways to keep that technology here in a sustainable, accessible way. With the MEG in Surrey’s ImageTech Lab, this is expected to change.

MRI and MEG will also continue to help brain-injury survivors, such as former Canadian Capt. Trevor Greene, who survived a major brain injury in Afghanistan after an axe blow to his head in 2006. Using advanced brain-imaging, it was possible to monitor Greene as he rewired his brain connections through a concept called neuroplasticity. Together with other innovative health technologies, such as an exoskeleton, he continues to recover the ability to move and to walk farther with every effort and technological advance.

When I moved back in 2012, much of this technology was considered experimental. This was quite concerning because it was in common use around Canada and the world. There have been many people hard at work to change this situation.

Over the last five years, owing in large thanks to an incredible network of dedicated health researchers in brain-imaging, it has been a privilege to witness B.C. leapfrog to the front of the field.

Innovations in technology are enabling these advances, bringing them directly to the bedside or into the hand of patients and families that can use them directly, thus playing a critical catalytic role and disrupting how health care will be delivered, and what we can expect in the foreseeable future. It’s particularly important to see this network expand outward to hubs like Surrey and others like it.

Connecting our various strengths across B.C. ensures globally competitive capabilities that actually touch people’s lives. We believed this was important then, and we believe it is even more so now.

For the next five years we look to the stratosphere for growth in networks within B.C., across Canada and internationally. We plan to touch many more lives around brain health and attract increasingly unprecedented opportunities to our home soil.

This fall, when the ImageTech Lab opens at SMH, it will be hard to predict how B.C.’s neuroscience community would continue to innovate brain health, but rest assured, it will be big. It’s a born-in-B.C. story.