London scientists clinch $2 million in federal funding to develop better imaging tools for brain disease

Lawson Health Research Institute has been awarded over $2 million in federal funding for a project focusing on two unique medical imaging systems designed to give unparalleled insight into brain function and disease.  

The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, announced more than $518 million in research infrastructure support through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

“Canada's researchers and scientists are some of the brightest and most skilled in the world. These investments will ensure that they have the cutting-edge laboratories and equipment needed to help us build a Canada that is healthier, greener, and more competitive," says The Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. 

In a live conversation, the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, shared more about how the funding will support 102 state-of-the-art projects at 35 post-secondary institutions and research hospitals across the country - helping Canada remain at the forefront of exploration, innovation and discovery. 

Dr. Keith St. Lawrence, Lawson Scientist
“Imaging technologies, such as MRI and PET scanners, have revolutionized our understanding and treatment of major neurological diseases, including dementia and mental illness, by allowing us to study disease mechanisms and their impact on brain health,” says Dr. Keith St. Lawrence, Lawson Scientist and project co-lead. “We are developing and testing two leading-edge systems that will enable imaging of key vascular, metabolic and molecular factors linked to disease.”  

The first system is a head-only PET (positron emission tomography) insert that can be placed in any clinical MRI machine. Combining the molecular specificity of PET with the structural and functional capabilities of MRI, the possibilities for brain imaging will be greatly enhanced. The head-only PET insert being tested in London has been developed by Cubresa Inc., located in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  

Dr. Jonathan Thiessen, Lawson Scientist
“Combined with deep-learning approaches, we could achieve a highly improved sensitivity of the PET insert and reduce the radiation dose by up to 50 times compared to whole-body imaging,” explains Dr. Jonathan Thiessen, Lawson Scientist and project co-lead. “This will be the first commercially available high-resolution brain PET/MRI installed in the world.”  

For example, better diagnosis of different forms of dementias would be possible and researchers could closely compare protein abnormalities in the brain with cognitive function. The low radiation dose allows for long-term studies investigating changes in the brain and neuroinflammation that can lead to major psychiatric diseases and cognitive degeneration or disability. 

The second system uses portable, state-of-the-art optical imaging to increase the reliability of bedside brain monitoring to provide rapid assessment of brain health in restrictive environments.   

“We believe this technology will demonstrate how biomedical optics can improve neurological outcome for surgery and patients in intensive care, provide an accessible technology for assessing neurovascular health, and become a clinically relevant tool for monitoring changes in brain function,” says Dr. St. Lawrence.  

With current systems, the type of data is limited and extremely vulnerable to signal contamination from the scalp which can overshadow signals from the brain. Using the team’s specialized detection approach, the scalp signal contributions could be greatly reduced to get more accurate information on markers of brain activity, such as cerebral blood flow and energy metabolism.  

The team will study use of the system in surgical and intensive-care settings to monitor for cerebral ischemia and metabolic stress, which are the major causes of brain injury. They will also monitor treatment in patients with schizophrenia and study dysfunction in the brain associated with negative symptoms, as cognitive impairment deteriorates with age for some people with the disease. Another goal is to develop a brain-computer interface for patients who are incapable of physical communication. 

“With this funding, we can develop a truly unique advancement that has the potential to test the limits of optics for brain applications,” adds Dr. Thiessen.

These two imaging platforms build on previous investments in Lawson Imaging that now exceed over $40 million in research funds since the initial CFI support in hybrid imaging in 2007. London is home to Canada’s first whole body PET/MRI scanner that was installed at St. Joseph’s Hospital, part of St. Joseph’s Health Care London.