“There is an increasing appreciation that our neurological function, our mind and our mental health are really connected, forwards and backwards.”
– Antoine Hakim
After years of treating stroke victims, Antoine Hakim came to an important realization. His patients were less worried about the physical impacts of this debilitating neurological disease—the third leading cause of death in Canada—than they were about how it affected their brain.
“My patients didn’t complain that their arm may be weak or that their leg may drag a little,” explains the University of Ottawa neurology professor, director of Neuroscience Research at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and recent inductee to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. “They really complained about the fact that their brain wasn’t working as well as before the stroke, that they weren’t thinking quickly enough, that they weren’t able to figure things out.”
Colleagues who cared for those suffering from multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease also reported similar concerns from their patients. What’s more, studies showed that the likelihood of suffering a stroke or other kinds of brain damage increased for people afflicted with depression. That’s when Hakim, one of the world’s foremost experts on stroke, began to think about the relationship between mental health and brain functionality and the idea for the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute (uOBMRI) was formed. The University approved the concept in 2011.
Still in its infancy, the uOBMRI has become one of the University’s main priorities. As its founding director, Hakim has high expectations for the institute. Based on its current strengths in neuroscience research and neurological care, he says, the University “has an opportunity to establish itself internationally as a centre of excellence in brain and mind.”
The scope of the health issues to be tackled by the institute is extensive. Cognitive impairment and dementia represent the largest cost to Canada’s health care system. Caring for dementia alone, which affects almost one million Canadians, is estimated by the Alzheimer Society of Canada to cost $33 billion a year.
But Hakim points out that the uOBMRI will not focus solely on problems affecting aging Canadians. It will promote brain and mind health across the age spectrum, from children to seniors. “A lot of psychiatric problems in our young citizens,” says Hakim, “arise from the fact that they have cognitive impairments.” In other words, a child who doesn’t think as quickly or as well as his or her peers because of genetic predisposition, a poor social environment or poor nutrition is more likely to develop psychiatric problems.
The symbiotic relationship between the brain and the mind is at the core of the institute’s vision: to maintain our overall health, we need to keep a fit brain and a bright mind. For instance, explains Hakim, it makes no sense to study Parkinson’s disease without knowing how to evaluate or treat the brain’s cognitive functions. Nor does it make sense to care for depressed people without taking into account their significantly higher chances of suffering a stroke.
“There is an increasing appreciation that our neurological function, our mind and our mental health are really connected, forwards and backwards,” he says.
One of the keys to understanding those connections is to increase the interdisciplinarity of the research performed by the more than 100 basic and clinical investigators who currently work in neuroscience at the University of Ottawa. Affiliated with faculties as diverse as medicine, science, social sciences and education, as well as with local hospitals and hospital-based research institutions, these researchers will bring a range of expertise to the new institute. So far, a dozen University-based partners are committed to working together to develop the uOBMRI.
Hakim’s dream is to bring these researchers together in a central hub and to link them to partners across Canada and around the world. He would also like to recruit scientists and clinicians specialized in the brain’s cognitive functions and build new space to house the Brain and Mind Research Institute. It’s an ambitious goal, but Hakim, whose research and public education efforts have been instrumental in making Canada a world leader in the prevention and treatment of stroke, is no stranger to building from the ground up. It’s a question of mind over matter.
by Monique Roy-Sole