Australian and University of Manitoba scientists are collaborating on a set of Alzheimer's studies that could one day put Winnipeg on the map as a centre for brain health research.
Their goal is to develop techniques for the early detection of the degenerative neurological disease to improve its treatment and delay its devastating effects — and in the process slash billions of dollars from future health care costs.
The scientists have built a lab at the Riverview Health Centre, which has 60 beds devoted to people with dementia. The researchers hope to track the progress of 200 patients over the next five years.
"Any diagnostic test that can detect dementia at earlier stages would decrease the health care costs significantly," said Zahra Moussavi, a U of M prof and Canada Research Chair in biomedical engineering.
In 2009, she met Australian scientist Brian Lithgow at a conference in Turkey. The two struck up a conversation about their work. "We are both monitoring brain changes with two completely different techniques," Moussavi said at a press briefing at Riverview on Monday.
Lithgow hooks up patients with wires and seats them in a specially designed chair that can tilt them in various positions. He measures the electrical activity between the brain and the balance organ located millimetres from the ear drum. He's already used the system to differentiate between different types of depression.
Want to get a head start on your day?
Get the day’s breaking stories, weather forecast, and more sent straight to your inbox every morning.
In research that will be unique to Winnipeg, he will use the same technology he developed at Monash University in Melbourne to test Alzheimer's patients.
Moussavi, meanwhile, has devised a robotic arm through which her subjects play a virtual reality computer game that allows her to measure their perceptions of space and time.
The U of M scientist has a personal stake in the research as her mother has had Alzheimer's for the past decade. She and her siblings pay $3,000 a month for her care in Iran.
"We want to make this the centre around the world for Alzheimer's (research)," Lithgow said, although he allows that scientists are now just testing hypotheses. "At the moment I can't say emphatically we can measure Alzheimer's. We're only just starting."
Lithgow was looking for a North American partner for his research and Manitoba won the Australian over, beating out a university in Texas, because of Moussavi's brain (She's really very brilliant," he said) and because Riverview was quick to offer the use of its facilities. He expects to spend six months of the year in Winnipeg for the next five years.
Larry Kusch Legislature Reporter
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.