Consciousness, Hearing and Auditory Perception, Language and Speech, Stroke and ischemic brain injury

First Round of BrainsCAN's 2018 Accelerator Grants Announced


Cognitive disorders and disease affect people all over the world. To better understand and expand our knowledge of the brain, BrainsCAN is funding three new Accelerator Grants for the first round of 2018 with the projects beginning this fall. The research projects study hearing loss and consciousness, along with cognitive defects caused by stroke and neuroinflammation. 

The funding is provided through BrainsCAN’s Accelerator Internal Granting Program. This program is designed to push the limits of cognitive neuroscience by supporting high-risk/high-reward research programs. The first BrainsCAN Accelerator grants were awarded in 2017 and distributed in three rounds to 25 research projects. In total, 12 departments and four faculties at Western University received the funding.

BrainsCAN’s unique Accelerator Program gives leading Western researchers the chance to focus on innovative research projects in areas that cannot be funded through traditional channels.

Congratulations to the successful recipients of the first round of BrainsCAN’s 2018 Accelerator Granting Program!

Successful Accelerator Projects:

Assessing listening with engaging, real-world auditory signals
Björn Herrmann with Ingrid Johnsrude

Hearing loss affects more than 40% of people aged 50 and over, and is typically diagnosed long after older people first experience real-life problems such as difficulties understanding speech in the presence of other sounds. Current clinical tests of speech perception are typically limited: they require that listeners report words from brief sentences that have no topical narrative and are not personally meaningful. Listeners may not engage with such arbitrary sentences, increasing performance variability and reducing sensitivity to impairment. Critically, the loss of information that results from hearing impairment increases the load on cognition (e.g., attention, memory, knowledge-guided perception) and, in turn, makes listening effortful. Standard speech testing leaves substantial variability in behaviour related to listening effort unexplained. Two people may fully understand speech in a given situation, but one person may have expended great effort and be fatigued afterwards, whereas another listener might have found it nearly effortless. The potential power of ‘listening effort’ to explain differences in behaviour has sparked great interest among clinicians. The goal of this research aims to develop and evaluate a novel way (using functional imaging and electrophysiology) to assess this cognitive impact of hearing loss with engaging, real-world auditory stimuli.

Communicating with patients with disorders of consciousness by translating thoughts into light
Keith St. Lawrence with Adrian Owen, Derek Debicki, Teneille Gofton, Daniel Milej

The goal of this research is to show that a light-based technology can provide a safe method of communicating with patients with disorders of consciousness who have no other means of communicating. This approach works by detecting a specific pattern of brain activity when a patient thinks of playing tennis. If this brain activity can be reliably detected, then a patient can use this mental activity to answer simple yes-no questions. In time, it should be possible to expand this approach to include other mental tasks, which would enhance a patient’s ‘vocabulary.’

PET and MRI measurements of neuroinflammation and brain plasticity after a stroke
Jonathan Thiessen with Shawn Whitehead, Justin Hicks, Matthew Fox

Inflammation in white matter tracts, known as the “wires” that connect different regions of the brain, may be one of the main causes of cognitive decline after a stroke. In turn, cognitive decline is accompanied by white matter degeneration and a loss of synapses, which are critical for brain function. In this project, researchers will assess brain structure and function before and after a stroke using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) measurements of synaptic density and inflammation and behavioural studies assessing cognitive function. This comprehensive assessment is the first of its kind in the world, made especially novel by the use of a PET probe sensitive to synaptic density. For the first time, researchers will be able to demonstrate the interaction of inflammation, synaptic density and white matter integrity in the living brain over time. The combination of high-resolution PET and MRI opens up new avenues of research in the understanding of the structural, functional and synaptic changes that accompany a stroke and correlate with cognitive function. Future studies could use these methods to assess therapies meant to mitigate inflammation and synaptic loss.

For more information about BrainsCAN’s 2018 Accelerator Granting Program and how to apply, visit: