Three years ago the Ontario Brain Institute and the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) partnered to accelerate the development of a neurotechnology cluster in Ontario. Since then, the program, named NeuroTech Ontario, has fostered the development of game-changing technologies including devices, diagnostics, and health applications to improve the lives of people living with brain disorders. This past spring, the $13M program wrapped up a successful initial phase of building NeuroTech Ontario with 12 innovative projects from Ontario research institutions supported by $5.1M from the Government of Canada’s FedDev Ontario and $7.9M from industry partners.
Here are highlights from a number of the exciting projects that have been funded:
Stimulating the brain to treat Alzheimer’s
Currently, there is a lack of effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease—medications may improve quality of life but so far, nothing exists to halt or slow the progression of the disorder. Recently, researchers have begun investigating the use of deep brain stimulation (DBS)—the delivery of mild electrical pulses to specific areas of the brain—to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
The FedDev Ontario award supported the study of six Alzheimer’s patients as part of the ADvance study at the University Health Network (UHN). This ongoing study is co-chaired by Dr. Andres Lozano, a neurosurgeon at the UHN. Watch his TED Talk to learn more about the use of deep brain stimulation techniques and their effects on Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.
Sponsored by Functional Neuromodulation Ltd., the ADvance study is investigating a particular area of the brain (the fornix) that plays a central role in memory to investigate whether DBS could provide an effective treatment for people with mild Alzheimer’s disease. Enrollment for the study is now complete with 42 patients from seven sites across North America and initial results are expected by mid-2015.
Seeing inside the brain to detect injury
Every year, about 1.5 million people in Canada and the U.S. sustain a traumatic brain injury. A major bottleneck in the delivery of effective care for brain injury is that most of the technology required for a diagnosis is cumbersome and costly. In many cases, time is of the essence following a traumatic brain injury to detect early possible causes of irreversible damage. Furthermore, some injuries can go unnoticed without a proper inspection.
With the help of the OBI-FedDev Ontario program, the University of Windsor and Tessonics Inc. (founded by Dr. Roman Maev), collaborated on the development of a portable Ultrasonic Transcranial Imaging (UTI) device, a diagnostic system for traumatic brain injuries. Interestingly, this unique innovation stemmed from a device created for the automotive industry that was designed to measure the strength and safety of steel welds. Its potential new application in the medical field shows how thinking outside the box and cross-industry collaborations can spark new innovations.
The Tessonics portable UTI device was redesigned to assess traumatic brain injuries in field emergency cases, unlike CAT and MRI systems which are only available in hospital environments. The UTI device quickly and non-invasively gives healthcare providers a high-resolution image of the patient’s brain, facilitating an accurate diagnosis and optimal delivery of care. It can also be used to detect the presence of foreign objects trapped in the brain, determining their size, location, and depth.
Assessing brain health from home
We all have memory issues from time to time but how do we know when it’s time to see a doctor about them? Cogniciti Inc., owned by Baycrest with MaRS Discovery District as a partner, is another project supported through OBI’s collaboration with the federal government. Leveraging the expertise in cognitive science and neuropsychology at Baycrest Health Sciences and the Rotman Research Institute, Cogniciti is building accessible tools and online resources in effort to better understand, and eventually improve brain health and wellness.
One tool they have designed combines fun, scientific research, and health empowerment. It’s an online brain health self-assessment that acts as an early warning tool for adults with the greatest level of memory concern, between the ages of 50 and 79. Partnerships with organizations such as the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), a non-profit committed to a ‘new vision of aging for Canada’, have provided 300 adults with access to this online self-assessment tool.
This tool provides test-takers with personalized feedback on actions they should take that could help to protect themselves from cognitive decline. This is based on the score given at the end of the test, which is generated by comparing your results relative to peers in a similar demographic, including age and education level.
What’s great about the tool is that it allows individuals to test their brain health in just 20 minutes from the comfort of their home. This eases the decision of whether a trek to the doctor’s office is necessary. In the short time since its launch in May 2014, over 25,000 people have completed the test. The test has also helped Cogniciti direct over 340 adults to visit their doctors for further cognitive assessment and diagnosis. The assessment could enable earlier diagnosis and treatment, making it possible to delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The promising potential of this tool lies in its ability to help identify dementia early and maximize the impact of early interventions. Try out the free test on the Cogniciti website.
OBI is proud of the successes of the 12 neurotechnology projects supported by FedDev Ontario. This collaborative public-private partnership has also resulted in significant economic development in the province contributing to 32 intellectual property disclosures, over 60 highly qualified personnel jobs, and 9 commercialized products or services to NeuroTech Ontario. These collaborations have catalyzed many relationships that will continue to grow beyond this original funding program.
It doesn’t end here. OBI is committed to continuing to help grow and strengthen the NeuroTech Ontario cluster with its many integrated programs leading to the commercialization of neurotechnologies. Furthermore, the cluster will get a powerful boost with the availability of OBI’s Brain-CODE platform for neuroscience big data and secure analytics.