The new Dr. Sandra Black Centre for Brain Resilience & Recovery at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre will bring together internationally recognized researchers in the pursuit of treatments and early prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related conditions.
Dr. Sandra Black, renowned Sunnybrook neurologist, explains what makes this Centre unique and how the power of science can help fuel inspiration and hope for the future of brain health.
What is brain resilience?
Dr. Sandra Black: Many factors can influence the brain’s resiliency– genes, environment, education, fitness, and personality factors may play a role in how people recover from stroke or other brain injury or resist the gradual deterioration that occurs in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Different brain regions and their connections work together to support various functions in daily life such as speaking, reading and writing, finding your way around, remembering things, planning and decision making. Those functions can be lost selectively, depending on which brain hubs and circuits are affected. Dementia is the term used to describe a stage of decline in at least two or more of these functions such that a person becomes dependent on others to carry out activities of daily living.
We want to better understand the biological and psychological mechanisms underlying resilience and help support strategies and treatments to prevent neurodegenerative diseases from developing in the first place, to slow decline and help recovery from damage already done.
What does this new Centre mean for patients and their families?
This is an important opportunity to bring hope to patients and their families who are experiencing the challenge of living with sudden onset brain injury such as stroke or with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease which can gradually rob an individual of short term memory, thinking and speaking skills. More than 44 million people around the world are living with Alzheimer’s or other dementias.
Sunnybrook scientists are continuing to drive research forward to pursue novel treatments and innovate ways to slow the progression of the dementia and help recovery from stroke. Key to these discoveries is our collaboration and knowledge exchange across disciplines and specialties among our researchers young and old. By connecting experts from diverse scientific disciplines, and specialties in brain medicine — such as neurology, psychiatry, geriatrics, neuropsychology, imaging, neuropharmacology, neurorehabilitation — these partnerships and an integrated approach can help our research teams collectively generate leading-edge solutions aiming for personalized best care to optimize quality of life.
What does this Centre named in your honour mean to you?
I am humbled and deeply grateful for the generosity of the lead donor, a local philanthropist who chooses to remain anonymous. This $10 million lead gift helps to secure the expertise we have cultivated over the years and to consolidate our dementia prevention and research centre dedicated to improving the lives of patients and families fighting these challenging conditions.
The brain is extremely complex and requires a research centre that can investigate and target brain disease in a multitude of ways including research embedded in care, which is always learning and giving back in order to continuously improve outcomes. Philanthropy can be a driving force for innovation enabling us to reach new heights and horizons. We aspire to raise more funds to fully realize our ambitious agenda but this gift gives us a huge boost in a very uncertain time in global history given the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have many examples of research being driven by brilliant and talented scientists, their staff and trainees at Sunnybrook who are committed to discovering solutions that can change care. Furthermore, in our current era of multidisciplinary network science, the centre is an active hub with key leadership roles in many networks within Toronto, Ontario, Canada and internationally including the University of Toronto, Toronto Dementia Research Alliance, Ontario Neurodegenerative Disease Research Initiative, Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, the Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery.
Some examples of cutting-edge research include:
- Research on the genetic forms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
- Vascular risk factors and risk of dementia in aging
- The role of exercise in slowing cognitive decline
- Innovative Alzheimer’s research utilizing focused ultrasound, that harnesses the power of sound waves to target areas deep in the brain non-invasively – without scalpels or need for any incisions.
These are just a handful of examples of the leading-edge research at Sunnybrook that is breaking new ground. I am hopeful that these explorations will help uncover more details about the kind of preventative actions individuals can take to slow Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and perhaps one day help stop these brain diseases in their tracks.
What is your hope for the future?
With continued research of the brain and neurodegenerative diseases such as stroke and dementia and traumatic, we are entering an era of earlier detection through blood tests, and imaging and potential treatment not only for stroke but also neurodegenerative disorders. We want the Centre to become a beacon shining light on building and preserving brain resilience and promoting recovery. Through research studies, we will be able to understand the pathology better and help bring improved treatments, as well as create opportunities for education in the prevention of brain disease.
I feel optimistic that the exciting and novel brain research taking place here and with our partners locally, and in other major centres around the world, is leading toward earlier detection and personalized treatment pathways that must always be embedded in healthy lifestyle choices including exercise, heart-healthy diet, restorative sleep, social engagement and optimal management of vascular risk factors, will bring the dawn of a new era for prevention of and recovery from Alzheimer’s and related dementias in the near future.