By Sean O’Malley
A dietary supplement to eliminate postpartum depression. A nasal spray to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A molecule that reverses memory loss and stops the progression of dementia.
These ideas have been dreamed up in the brains of some of CAMH’s top brain researchers, ideas that, following many years of rigorous science, are becoming tantalizingly close to becoming a reality in the years ahead.
With access to cutting-edge technologies like the Brain Health Imaging Centre and Azrieli Centre for Neuro-Radiochemistry under the direction of Dr. Neil Vasdev, CAMH scientists can search for clues and patterns in the brain more closely than ever before.
And with the ability of Dr. Sean Hill’s Krembil Centre for Neuroinformatics team to harness the awesome power of artificial intelligence and machine-learning to refine that search—especially when it comes to identifying biomarkers of mental illness—more breakthroughs that could make a real difference in the lives of millions of people could be just around the corner.
“I am eternally optimistic,” says Dr. Aristotle Voineskos, Vice President of Research at CAMH. “It’s almost hard to let myself dream that this will all become a reality, but then… Why not? Why should our efforts to defeat mental illness be any different than efforts to defeat cancer? We are in an incredibly exciting time. Our knowledge about the brain continues to grow exponentially. And we are now positioned to take advances in science and technology development and make a difference in the lives of patients today.”
“We are in the midst of what I would say is a revolution in brain science where the amount of knowledge has increased dramatically,” says Dr. Etienne Sibille, Senior Scientist, Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute, about his research on memory and aging. “It’s a very exciting time for brain research and discovery.”
The investments that CAMH has made over time in advanced technologies like these over the years has created a virtuous cycle of innovation: the better the tools CAMH can provide, the better it can recruit and retain the top scientists in their fields.
That’s what allowed CAMH to bring back Dr. Vasdev, who had left for Harvard University but was lured back three years ago.
“My dream is to build the best radiochemistry program and the best brain imaging program in the world. That’s what brought me back,” says Dr. Vasdev.
“My dream is to create the perfect drug, a drug without side-effects,” says Dr. Fang Liu, Senior Scientist and Tapscott Chair in Schizophrenia, Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute, about her work on PTSD biomarkers.
In the collection of snapshots that follow, you will hear more about what CAMH’s brain scientists are dreaming up these days. You will also see a few key patterns emerge: how the identification of biomarkers is transforming our understanding of mental illness, how collaborations among these brain research pioneers allows each of them to dream even bigger, and ultimately how all of this could help us find what some have called the Holy Grail of medicine: truly personalized mental health treatment that is as unique as the person receiving it. For better brain health. And for better mental health.
“I am optimistic that being able to build a better and more precise picture of a particular mental illness that an individual has means that we will be able to directly treat it and directly cure it,” says Dr. Hill.
“Being able to understand what is happening in each person’s brain and being able to deliver a targeted treatment that is specific to them, I think that is the Holy Grail of medicine,” says Dr. Daniel Blumberger, Clinician Scientist, Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute and Director of the Temerty Centre for Therapeutic Brain Intervention. “It’s amazing to think about how many people we can help with these personalized approaches.”