Infants are inundated with visual and auditory information that is critical to their development of communication. One important communication skill that infants learn is the ability to discriminate between their native language and an unfamiliar language. Whitney Weikum is studying whether infants can develop the ability to discern people speaking in the infants’ native language, versus other languages, based solely on visual information. The research involves conducting imaging studies that will determine the neural processes responsible for analyzing visual information. Results from the study could help create definitive tests for patterns of normal communication development. Such tests could lead to early identification and treatment of infants with disorders such as Autism.
In previous research, people experiencing marginalization such as those living with mental illness, HIV/AIDS, illicit drug use and homelessness have reported very negative experiences with the health care system. These experiences can result in delays seeking treatment and greater future costs to the health care system. At the same time, these groups have reported positive experiences with street nurses (registered nurses who work on the street). Bernadette Pauly is assessing the nature and quality of health care relationships between street nurses and their clients, and how health and social policies and organizational structures affect these relationships. Increasing understanding of these relationships, along with factors in the environment where street nurses provide care, could ultimately reveal ways to improve health care delivery for marginalized groups and, ultimately, their health.
Dendritic cells play a vital role in regulating the immune response. They are the only cells capable of activating T cells that have not previously been exposed to a particular antigen (immune threat) to recognize and mount an attack on these foreign proteins. This process ensures an appropriate immune response against potentially harmful antigens. Dendritic cells are also thought to have the ability to instruct the immune system to ignore certain antigens, establishing a state of immune tolerance in the body. When the balance between immune activation and immune tolerance is disrupted, the result may be the development of autoimmune disorders in which the immune system attacks body tissue or cancer in which tumour cell growth goes unchecked. Dr. Cheryl Helgason is studying the biology of dendritic cells and the mechanisms by which they interact with T cells to activate an immune response or to establish immune tolerance. Such research could suggest ways of manipulating immune function to develop new methods of treating cancers, autoimmunity and other diseases involving immune dysfunction.
This multi-disciplinary unit is focused on improving current treatment of fractures, developing and implementing primary and secondary prevention strategies and developing new knowledge about mechanisms underlying bone health and disease. This includes research exploring the role of bone mineral as an important determinant of joint health. The unit’s goal is the development and translation of new knowledge to optimize bone health and minimize the burden of osteoporosis and fracture.
The cost of publicly funded prescription drug programs in Canada is growing an estimated 15 per cent a year. Studies show drug plan staff have little time to reassess drugs already on the market and are overwhelmed with submissions from pharmaceutical companies seeking approval of new drugs. In September 2001, federal, provincial and territorial Health Ministers launched the Common Drug Review (CDR) to develop a national process for reviewing evidence on new drugs and reducing duplication among provinces. How CDR will integrate with current communication systems to share information between drug plan staff and researchers is not yet clear. Mowafa Househ is assessing how drug plans use and produce evidence within the CDR system, and how virtual networking can improve the exchange of this knowledge. Using web-based conferencing, Mowafa is developing a three-step protocol to improve links between drug plan manager and researchers. He is applying the protocol to three major drug plan issues: assessing new drugs, re-assessing existing drugs, and evaluating the impact of drug policies.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria cause numerous diseases including meningitis, urinary tract infections and diarrhea. Worldwide, enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC) is one of the leading causes of diarrhea in children and is an endemic health threat in the developing world, causing the death of several hundred thousand people each year. Isolated outbreaks of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) also occur in developed countries, often transmitted in contaminated hamburgers and water supplies, and can cause diarrhea and fatal kidney disease. After binding to the cells that line the intestine, E. coli injects several proteins that lead to diarrhea and disease. Dr. Philip Hardwidge aims to identify these proteins and determine their structure and function. He is also examining how intestinal cells respond to E. coli at the level of gene expression, using an advanced technique to analyze several thousand genes at a time. This research could guide the design of future vaccines and antibiotics to prevent and treat E. coli.
Neurons (nerve cells) communicate through a process in which one cell stimulates another with an electric pulse transmitted by secreting special chemicals called neurotransmitters into the synapse (gap) between the cells. Learning and memory are influenced by changes in the strength of these synaptic connections and by alterations in the excitability of neurons (how readily they produce an electrochemical response). Abnormalities in the regulation of neuronal excitability give rise to neurological diseases including epilepsy and psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia. Dr. Brian MacVicar is studying two aspects of synaptic transmission: mechanisms that regulate neuronal excitability and mechanisms that influence synaptic plasticity (the ability of neurons to adapt the way they communicate with each other). In one series of experiments, he is examining cells that surround neurons in the brain to determine if they influence neuronal activity through the regulation of blood flow or other mechanisms. He is also studying how past synaptic experience modifies activity in dendrites, the part of the neuron that receives synaptic transmissions. This research into how brain activity is regulated will contribute to improved understanding of many aspects of neuroscience, including stroke, mental illness and learning and memory.
In earlier research supported by a MSFHR Masters Trainee Award, Erin Drew disproved theories that CD34, a cell surface protein, was specific to immature blood cells. She found CD34 on immature blood cells, but also on cells lining the blood vessels and on mast cells. Mast cells are known to play a pivotal role in allergic and asthmatic responses. Erin’s work now focuses on CD34’s function in mast cells and how the protein prevents inappropriate adhesion to other cells and tissues. These enquiries will increase new knowledge on how blood cells move around the body and how mast cells can invade tissues and respond to allergens. Ultimately, Erin hopes her work will lead to the identification of targets for the treatment of allergies and asthma.
The onset and development of many mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are believed to be affected by stress and the hormones produced as a result of stress. Research has shown that these stress hormones act upon receptors in the brain that interact with the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a neurochemical system which contains receptors that respond to both cannabis (marijuana) and naturally produced substances known as endocannabinoids. People with schizophrenia have been shown to have elevated levels of naturally-occurring endocannabinoids, and there is evidence that alteration of the endocannabinoid system through the use of marijuana reduces the effectiveness of anti-psychotic medication. Matthew Hill is investigating links between the endocannabinoid system, exposure and hormonal responses to stress and the development of schizophrenia. Matthew’s research may improve understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms involved in schizophrenia and suggest future treatments to manage this mental illness.
Research has shown that smoking and drinking typically begin in adolescence. Stefania Maggi is studying the role of family, peers, school and neighbourhoods in developing risk-taking behaviours including smoking and drinking. She aims to identify the factors present early in life — such as parenting styles and socioeconomic conditions — that can predict smoking and drinking during adolescence. Stefania is closely examining how socioeconomic conditions shape the way parents relate to their children, and how the relationship between self-concept and affiliation with peers influences smoking and drinking. While other researchers have addressed these issues, few studies have examined a representative sample of Canadian children on a long-term basis. Stefania is analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. Her study will make a valuable contribution to programs aimed at reducing smoking and drinking among adolescents.