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Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress at UTSC receives major CFI grant

CFI GRANT: A major grant has been announced for UTSC's Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress, headed by biology professor Ian Brown. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

As the Canadian population ages, incidents of heart attacks, strokes, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are expected to increase. Leading research on the brain’s responses to these biological stresses recently received a major boost, with the Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress at the University of Toronto Scarborough being awarded $2.7 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

The Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress is a collaborative research centre and cluster of scientists at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Their multidisciplinary work spans molecular, cellular and physiological aspects of neuroscience. The federal government announced a new round of grants on June 19, with the centre receiving this award from CFI’s Leading Edge Fund.

The grant will provide for new equipment, including advanced microscopes, cell sorters, and other sophisticated technologies, creating a world-class infrastructure for important studies on the response of the nervous system to biological stress, according to biological sciences professor Ian Brown, the designated project leader in the funding application. The centre was established in 2001 with a major grant of $3.8 million from CFI and the Ontario Innovation Trust.

“I was delighted with the news, and it made all of our efforts worthwhile,” said Brown, a molecular biologist who holds a Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in the Neurobiology of Stress. “These funds will be crucial in helping to advance our research, in particular our quest for new strategies to treat diseases that are expected to affect more and more people as our population ages. Our overall goal is to understand the effects of stress and disease on the brain in order to develop new therapeutic approaches to treat cerebrovascular and neurodegenerative disorders.”

This new technology will be transformative for the research enterprise at the centre, and most importantly, our overall scientific understanding of the response of the nervous system to biological stress, noted Brown. The research has potential applications for the future to alleviate the severe damage to the human brain caused by strokes, heart attacks and neurodegenerative disorders.

To combat the effects of such diseases, scientists must advance in fundamental ways our basic understanding of the response of the nervous system to biological stress, Brown said. The pursuit of new treatments for these diseases is an “ever-more pressing challenge” in an aging society, he noted.

This investment will support a team of researchers conducting studies at the molecular, cellular, physiological and behavioral levels, according to Brown. It will facilitate the development of effective strategies to protect the brain from strokes, heart attacks and neurodegenerative disease and will also lead to partnerships with Canadian companies to develop and test new therapeutics to combat these disorders.

“The Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress is a hub for cutting-edge research and graduate student activity on our campus,” said Professor Greg Vanlerberghe, chair of the department of biological sciences. “We’re so pleased with this news and what it will mean for the science being conducted in this core facility. This award will have a tremendous impact on neuroscience research at UTSC, and many other research groups on the campus will directly benefit from the presence of this world-class equipment infrastructure. The scientific discoveries being made here should have lasting benefits down the road for all of society. ”

The new infrastructure will allow neuroscientists to accomplish six major objectives. They will be able to:

• Grow brain cells in a "tissue culture facility" and manipulate the expression of genes involved in stress-activated and disease-activated pathways using advanced genetic techniques;

• Isolate specific populations of stressed and diseased brain cells for molecular analysis using a fluorescent-activated cell sorter and laser scissors/tweezers;

• Identify pathways within the brain that can be activated by new therapeutic drugs to protect brain cells from neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular disease;

• Observe how features of isolated brain cells, and brain cells in living animals, are altered in response to stress and disease using advanced microscope technology, namely a spinning-disk confocal microscope with single-particle tracking, a multi-photon microscope and a confocal endoscope;

• Investigate how stress- and neurodegenerative disease-states alter the functionality of brain cells using an advanced "patch clamp" neurophysiology cell recording system, and

• Examine responses to potential neuroprotective treatments for neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular diseases using a 'behavioural observation' facility.

Other principal users of the centre are: Professors Michelle Aarts, Rudy Boonstra, Suzanne Erb, Rene Harrison, Joanne Nash, and Stephen Reid. Other users are 34 researchers located at prominent universities across Canada, the United States and Europe who are conducting collaborative research with the above-mentioned principal users in their laboratories at UTSC.

Applications for these CFI funds require a great deal of preparatory work and documentation, Brown said, so he was thrilled that this project received the full amount requested. “I would like to particularly thank Professors Stephen Reid and Rene Harrison for the important help they gave me during the writing of the grant application,” said Brown.

The CFI announced a slate of research grants to institutions across the country on June 19, with the University of Toronto and its partner hospitals receiving $134.8 million in CFI research funding. The university’s portion, $76.6 million, represents the largest CFI investment to U of T since the program’s inception in 1997. For more on other projects funded at U of T, click here.

For more information on U of T Scarborough’s Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress, click here.

© University of Toronto Scarborough