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Iran-born prof on front line of fight against Alzheimer's

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When the Islamic revolution happened in Iran in 1979, Zahra Moussavi was 18 and on her way to becoming a high school physics teacher.

The next year, the Iran-Iraq war began, and she helped at hospitals close to the front.

She wasn't a medical student, but learned first aid and procedures such as giving blood transfusions, so she could do something to help.

"I was providing help for the wounded," she said. "They were accepting help from anyone."

 

Today, she's an engineering professor at the University of Manitoba on the front lines of another fight: helping an aging population battle Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Again, Moussavi waded into a war that hit too close to home. Again, she is willing to do what she can to help.

She came to Canada from Iran in 1989 with two young children and her husband, who was an Iranian oil and gas ministry employee. She started her master's degree in Calgary after staying home a year.

"I could read and write but couldn't speak English," she said. She went to the library with her kids and got English as a Second Language books and recordings. That helped.

In 1993, they moved to Winnipeg, and she continued her studies at the University of Manitoba's engineering faculty.

"I was one of the first Iranian students in the post-graduate program. Now Iranian graduate students are the majority."

When her husband finished his work in Calgary, she was set to graduate from her master's program. Later, she found her PhD advisors -- "the smartest people I've ever met" -- and wasn't about to leave.

Her husband left the country for a year and then joined her in Winnipeg, where she had started her PhD. Being in post-graduate studies with two kids in elementary school was a struggle. But digging in her heels helped. "I'm stubborn," she said.

Now her kids are grown up, and she's divorced. And a new project fills her time.

Her mother, still in Iran, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's 13 years ago.

And Moussavi is a Canada research chair in the biomedical engineering program at the U of M, conducting research on sleep apnea diagnosis as well as dementia diagnosis and therapy at Riverview Health Centre. She's trying to find ways to detect and treat dementia sooner.

Her mother "always wanted to be a scientist, like Madame Curie," said Moussavi who visits her mother twice a year.

"Maybe I'm fulfilling her wish."

About 450,000 people in Canada have some form of dementia and Alzheimer's, but Moussavi believes the real number is actually higher because diagnosis is so difficult. The sooner it's detected, the sooner people can start with exercises to improve brain function, she said.

One of Moussavi's projects has been to develop a technology called the Joy Chair -- a combination wheelchair and virtual reality computer game. It's connected to a computer screen that tests how well people navigate in a virtual building, assessing their spatial memory.

"Our grey matter starts to shrink after we're 25," she said. "Our white matter expands until we're 35 to 40."

The white matter, the connections that help memory and the brain to make new associations and work better, is what she's trying to strengthen. She says learning new activities and exercises can help the brain.

"It is true: Use it or lose it."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 J6

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