Christie receives $1.06M from CIHR for brain health research


Dr. Brian Christie (Division of Medical Sciences) has received $1.06 million for two critical brain health research projects, one focusing on how concussion causes cognitive impairment and the other on the effects of alcohol and cannabis on the developing brain. The investment is through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant program, which builds and conducts health-related research and knowledge translation projects.

 “This funding will go a long way to helping us better understand two significant brain health problems while training the next generation of researchers here at UVic,” says Christie. “I’m also extremely thankful for the donor funding we received from local philanthropists to get these lines of research started. It really made a difference in getting us these awards.”

Concussion, microbleeds, and cognitive impairment

Concussions and other mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI) can cause many cognitive and behavioural changes, such as difficulty concentrating and remembering things, irritability, decreased processing speed, and different decision-making and reasoning abilities. While mTBI is a leading cause of disability in young Canadians, we don’t really understand how it causes those cognitive deficits. Without this knowledge, it can be difficult to treat patients and predict how their brain injuries could impact them throughout life.

Christie received $967,725 over five years for the new project “Bringing focus to the invisible injury: Defining a role for microbleeds and microglia in mild traumatic brain injury.” He and co-investigators Dr. Marie-Ève Tremblay and Dr. Patrick Nahirney (both Division of Medical Sciences) will use a new model developed in the Christie Lab to show how mTBI produces the cognitive deficits we associate with concussions.  

The researchers will use electrophysiology and high-resolution microscopy imaging to learn if mTBI causes wide-spread damage to small blood vessels in the brain, activates the brain’s immune cells, and reduces synaptic plasticity. When damaged, blood vessels can release a compound in the blood called fibrinogen. Fibrinogen is normally important for clotting, but it can also initiate an inflammatory process involving microglia, the brain’s immune cells. This inflammation can negatively impacts neurons, leading to the impairment of learning and memory processes that can be studied using electrophysiology.

Along with helping to understand the mechanisms of mTBI, the results of this study will increase our understanding of how repeated mTBI (r-mTBI) early in life could negatively impact individuals as they age. More importantly, they will allow the researchers to determine if fibrinogen could be used a therapy to help reduce the negative impact of r-mTBI on cognition.


Alcohol, cannabis, and the developing brain

Christie also received $100,000 to continue his lab’s research on the impact of simultaneous use of alcohol and marijuana (SAM) during pregnancy on the developing brain. The current project, “Drinking with Mary Jane: Understanding how consuming alcohol and marijuana during pregnancy impacts the developing brain,” aims to see how SAM affects the structure and function of the offspring’s hippocampus. Specifically, the researchers will learn if SAM impacts the number of neurons and receptors related to learning and memory processes, and if it changes how these structures communicate.

The results of this study will also help us understand how SAM during pregnancy can affect offspring later in life. Together with co-investigators Dr. Jennifer Thomas (San Diego State University) and Dr. Catharine Winstanley (University of British Columbia), the researchers will look at how SAM affects behaviours controlled by the hippocampus – such as spatial and discrimination learning, anxiety and depressive-like manners, and decision-making processes – and if this can lead to addictive tendencies.

Uniquely, graduate students Hannah Reid (Christie Lab) and Melanie Lysenko-Martin (Winstanley Lab) were included as trainee co-applicants for the project grant. Reid and Lysenko-Martin will be directly involved with the work as part of their PhD research.