Aging, Hearing and Auditory Perception, Imaging methods, Language and Speech, Learning and Learning Disorders, Memory, Mental Health, Motor Function, Multiple Sclerosis, Neurodegeneration

Funding announced for fifth round of BrainsCAN Accelerator Internal Granting Program


A fifth round of BrainsCAN Accelerator grants have been awarded to impactful cognitive neuroscience programs at Western University. Earlier this year, 10 applications from the fall intake round were approved for funding from the BrainsCAN Accelerator Internal Granting Program. Research programs range from examining cognitive functions in multiple sclerosis (MS), to understanding factors that contribute to mental health problems in teenagers.

The BrainsCAN Accelerator Program was designed to push the limits of cognitive neuroscience by supporting high-risk/high-reward research programs. The Accelerator program was launched in early 2017 and since it began, five rounds of funds totaling more than $3 million have been awarded to Western researchers. In total, 25 departments across five faculties have benefited from BrainsCAN Accelerator funding.

Learn more about the successful programs below.

Uncovering the Neural Basis of Cognitive Impairment following Hearing Loss: An All-Optical Electrophysiology Approach
Brian Allman with Wataru Inoue

Numerous clinical studies in humans and preclinical work have confirmed that hearing loss represents a significant risk factor for cognitive impairment; however, the underlying neural mechanisms remain elusive. In this proposal, we will use a novel method of neuroimaging to reveal how hearing loss induced by loud noise exposure leads to aberrant neural activity in areas of the brain that control learning, memory and higher cognitive function. Ultimately, this cutting-edge approach will allow us to overcome the limitations of conventional neural recordings to actually visualize with millisecond resolution the changes in activity of distinct populations of neurons, all while the hearing-impaired model performs complex cognitive behavioural tasks.

Development of Virtual Gaming Environments for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Jody Culham with Ingrid Johnsrude, Julio Martinez-Trujillo, VPixx Technologies

Researchers in neuroscience and psychology typically investigate the human brain using simple images and tasks. Excitingly, new technologies such as video game platforms and 3D projectors could now enable researchers to develop immersive, fluid, and naturalistic environments, even inside a brain scanner.

The goal of this project is to develop, validate and test three aspects of a 3D video game environment for neuroscience. First, we will test whether controlling the actions of a virtual avatar in a realistic environment can evoke similar activation as performing the same actions in reality. Second, we will test whether presenting a 3D environment yields stronger or different activation than a flat 2D environment.  Third, we will test whether active video-game play yields stronger activation better than passive replay.  We also hope to develop new methods to analyze data from video games in which events and their timing are partially determined by the participant’s choices and not entirely by the experimenter. 

The longer-term goal of the project will be to expand the video game to include a broader range of natural brain functions. Once this approach has been established in typical individuals, it may be used to better understand dysfunction in neurologic disorders.

Use of functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to detect brain activity associated with passive auditory and sensory processing in comatose survivors of cardiac arrest
Derek Debicki with Keith St. Lawrence, Adrian Owen, Teneille Gofton

Some patients who survive cardiac arrest remain critically ill and in a comatose state. Providing a timely and reliable prognosis with respect to neurologic recovery can be challenging. In part, this is due to a lack of understanding how to detect which patients will recover over time and which patients have sustained permanent irreparable brain damage. The goal of this study is to determine if functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) can be used as a tool to identify changes in brain activity associated with hearing different words and sounds. If so, fNIRS can be used in the intensive care unit (ICU), at a patient’s bedside, to assess patients who are in a coma and unresponsive. We will test the prediction that patients in a coma who can still differentiate words and sounds (as seen with changes in brain activity using fNIRS) will have a better overall clinical outcome than those who cannot. In doing so, we will gain a better understanding of the brain processes related to recovery from a coma. In addition, we will help provide a tool that doctors can use in the ICU to provide a prognosis of a patient’s recovery after cardiac arrest.

Dissecting the architecture of the neuromodulation of cognition in prefrontal cortical circuits with simultaneous intracellular recordings and local pharmacology in NHP
Stefan Everling with Susheel Vijayraghavan, Kevin Johnston, Wataru Inoue

The prefrontal cortex is a major node of the brain network that mediates higher cognitive functions. Dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex has been implicated in many neuropsychiatric diseases. While we can now record the firing of brain cells in the prefrontal cortex during cognitive tasks, we know little about the subthreshold activity of these brain cells during cognition. Here we will develop a technique for recording and manipulating this activity in NHP. This approach is imperative for a comprehensive understanding of what computations single neurons perform in cognitive tasks, and how these operations are affected in diseases with disruption of neuromodulation such as Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia.

Validating methods for using non-invasive brain stimulation to influence auditory perception
Jessica Grahn with Marc Joanisse, Stephen Lomber, Stefan Everling, Molly Henry

Important communicative sounds, such as speech and music, are decidedly rhythmic, and brain activity synchronizes to these sounds. This synchronization improves speech and music understanding, and those with certain language or music disorders show synchronization problems. Non-invasive brain stimulation allows us to shape brain responses. Here we will use transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS), a form of brain stimulation that applies a weak alternating current to the scalp. Ongoing brain activity synchronizes with the electrical current, allowing us to potentially increase or decrease synchrony between the brain and environmental language or musical sounds by tuning the electrical current. We will test whether increasing brain-environment synchrony improves language and music processing, and conversely, whether decreasing synchrony impairs processing. We will measure how neural synchronization varies across individuals, to determine how to stimulate for each individual to achieve the greatest change in behaviour for any given individual. Our results will deliver an efficient method to tune tACS for individual people, maximizing the success of future brain stimulation applications.

Altering high-risk trajectories in adolescent depression via attention bias modification training: Neural predictors and mechanisms
Elizabeth Hayden with Marc Joanisse, Pan Liu

Adolescence is a critical period with respect to mental health problems, as depressive and anxious symptoms rapidly increase at this time. Subthreshold adolescent symptoms can evolve into clinically significant manifestations of disorder, resulting in personal suffering and placing serious demands on familial, social, and medical resources. Therefore, identifying etiological factors that place youth at risk, particularly ones that are modifiable, is crucial toward prevention. Maladaptive biases in attention play a causal role in risk and also appear amenable to early intervention, although specific attention components and their brain correlates are poorly understood. We will therefore use cutting-edge tools to examine the neural and attentional components that characterize at-risk youth, and will use an attention training paradigm to examine change in these related to prevention. Our findings will directly contribute to knowledge on the etiology of depression and anxiety and contribute to more efficient and cost-effective earlier prevention.

Developing optogenetics/electrophysiology applications for studying cognitive impairment during stress
Wataru Inoue with Brian Allman, Julio Martinez-Trujillo

Stress impairs cognition in otherwise healthy people and dramatically worsens cognitive dysfunction in mental disorders including depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders. A large body of evidence from studies suggests that stress changes the chemistry of the brain, and as a result interferes with the networks of brain cells (neurons) in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is important for certain types of cognitive functions, for example to temporally remember a 7-digit number while making a phone call. Our research project will reveal a cellular mechanism for stress-induced cognitive impairment. We will focus on one group of neurons that are part of the PFC neural network and produce a neurotransmitter, corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH). In other parts of the brain, CRH mediates stress-related changes, such as anxiety and stress hormone release. But, because of technical difficulties, if and how CRH affects cognition are poorly understood. We will develop cutting-edge techniques to precisely measure and artificially manipulate the activity of CRH neurons in the PFC in living brains. The success of our project will open the door to understanding the neural mechanisms for how stress impairs cognitive functions and may contribute to mental disorders.

The effect of musical training on speech and sound perception
Ingrid Johnsrude with Vanessa C. Irsik, Stephen Van Hedger

Musicians develop instrument or voice expertise through years of specialized training and they not only excel at extracting auditory features that are important for perception of pitch and timbre, but also exhibit superior motor skills, such as enhanced hand dexterity, beat synchronization, and vocal tract control. Recent research has supported the intriguing possibility that musicians possess an enhanced ability to understand speech in noisy environments and older musicians may be protected against at least some of the deleterious effects of age-related hearing loss.

These claims are of tremendous potential importance for science and for social and educational policy, but they were generally reported in single studies with small sample sizes, and no attempts to replicate any of them have been reported. A systematic, large-scale attempt at replication is critically needed. The aim of this research is to examine whether musical training is truly associated with enhanced processing of sound across the lifespan, when using a sufficiently large sample and when other factors, like personality and socioeconomic status, are carefully controlled.

Developing behavioral testing and MR imaging to evaluate cognitive impairment in a mouse model of CNS autoimmunity
Steven Kerfoot with Sarah Morrow, Ravi Menon, Flavio Beraldo

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is the most common neurodegenerative disease in young adults in Canada. While treatments are improving, there is no cure and those living with MS will be affected by neurodegeneration for decades of their life. Most attention has been paid to the physical disability that can accumulate with chronic disease, yet it is increasingly being recognized that there are also impacts on higher brain function. Indeed, cognitive impairment (including problems with attention and memory) and cognitive fatigue (which limits the capacity to remain focused on a task) is found in 40-65% of MS patients. These symptoms can appear very early in the disease and problems with cognition can significantly impact the work and family life of someone living with MS even before physical impairment becomes a problem. The goal for this collaborative project is to test the feasibility of using models of MS to investigate the immune and brain-structure underpinnings of cognitive problems associated with the disease. Through leveraging local expertise in immunology, MR imaging, and advanced behavioral analysis, we aim to open up new avenues of research to explore this poorly understood and understudied aspect of the disease.

Somatosensory microcircuits for real-world hand function
Andrew Pruszynski with Julio Martinez-Trujillo, Stefan Everling, Brian Corneil, Vaishnavi Sukumar, Rhonda Kersten

Fluorescent calcium signals can serve as a proxy for neuronal activity and, when observed with a two-photon microscope, can provide dense and long-term recordings from neuronal populations with cellular and even sub-cellular resolution, and with cell-type and layer specificity. Two-photon calcium imaging is providing revolutionary insight into the neural basis of animal behavior. However, two-photon imaging in NHPs is in its infancy, with only one lab reporting robust measures of calcium signals in the context of natural behavior. This project aims to develop a two-photon microscopy setup for NHP and demonstrate touch-evoked calcium signals in the context of real-world hand control. 

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