Leading the Way

University of Calgary researchers Dr. Eric Smith and Dr. Marc Poulin are on the forefront of early dementia diagnosis and prevention.

 Dr. Eric Smith (l), Dr. Marc Poulin (r) - Photos by Jared Sych

Dr. Eric Smith (l), Dr. Marc Poulin (r) - Photos by Jared Sych

Early diagnosis leads to more effective treatment

Dr. Eric Smith, medical director of the University of Calgary’s Cognitive Neurosciences Clinic, has a first-hand understanding of the direct, personal impact of Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and other cognitive conditions on his patients and their families.

“As we make progress on other conditions, like heart attacks, stroke and cancer, our population is living to a much older age than in the past, and, as a result, we’re seeing increasing numbers of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias,” he says. “I recognize every day, as part of my work, the limitations we have currently in helping people with these conditions.”

We have some promising results that suggest we might be able to develop a test for Alzheimer’s disease based on a simple blood test.
— Dr. Eric Smith

One of the ways to overcome these limitations, he says, is for researchers to continue to identify new diagnostic biomarkers, which can help doctors make more specific and accurate diagnoses in the earliest stages of dementia. “We have trouble identifying the different diseases that cause dementia, and we also have trouble identifying the diseases that cause dementia in the early stage,” says Smith, who is also an associate professor in the department of clinical neurosciences at the U of C.

Smith’s latest research project, which is funded by Brain Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, aims to recruit some 300 participants over the next three years. Recruitment has been underway since January 2017, and participation has expanded to Edmonton. 

“By the end of recruitment, we hope to have identified some promising new means to determine risks for dementia and to discriminate Alzheimer’s disease from vascular problems and other forms of dementia,” Smith says.

There is broad agreement among doctors and scientists that treatments applied at the earliest stages of the disease are the most effective, which is why the biomarker research Smith and his research teams from the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta are carrying out is so encouraging. “We have some promising results that suggest we might be able to develop a test for Alzheimer’s disease based on a simple blood test,” Smith says, adding that this particular marker was developed by the U of C’s Dr. Peter Stys.

“It would allow a family doctor or a specialist to do blood tests to understand whether Alzheimer’s disease might be related to memory symptoms or the cause of dementia. That’s not something we have currently, and it would be a major breakthrough.”

Exercise: A promising, natural intervention

As a lifelong sports lover and long-time runner, Dr. Marc Poulin, a professor in the department of physiology and pharmacology within the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, is a passionate advocate of exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle.

As part of his research, Poulin, who heads the Laboratory of Human Cerebrovascular Physiology at the U of C and holds the Brenda Strafford Foundation Chair in Alzheimer Research, is exploring how aerobic exercise can support better cognitive and brain health, particularly among the aging population.

“I think it’s become clear that there needs to be a better understanding of how lifestyle interventions impact brain health,” he says.

Poulin and a research team from the U of C are the minds behind Brain in Motion, a comprehensive research study focusing on the links between lifestyle interventions — such as diet and exercise — and sleep and cognition. 

I think it’s become clear that there needs to be a
better understanding of how lifestyle interventions impact brain health.
— Dr. Marc Poulin

The researchers found that over six months, the people who participated in regular aerobic activity in the form of walking or jogging reported increased vigour as well as “significant decline in scales that assess anger, confusion, depression, fatigue and tension,” Poulin says.

Now, he is heading up a research team to conduct a follow-up study. While the original Brain in Motion research focused on a relatively healthy adult population, the new research — dubbed Brain in Motion II — will attempt to make a connection between physical activity and cognition in adults who may be at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another related form of dementia.

“There’s a huge scientific community trying to work really hard to better understand these diseases. We do know that exercise is a very promising intervention, and it’s also a very natural one. It doesn’t involve drugs, and it’s feasible for a large portion of people,” says Poulin.

“It’s really driven by the opportunity to try and bring about positive change in people’s lives, and help people optimize their physical and mental health as well as they can for as long as they can.”

Poulin says the new round of research may also draw connections to the social benefits of exercise on cognitive health. “People who have come to our exercise programs have developed friendships, and in some cases have continued to exercise together and to socialize together,” he says.

Poulin says the research has also had a positive effect on his own team. “I feel, from a human perspective, we’ve also gained a huge amount from the participants. It’s just been so rewarding to see the impact on their lives.” [ ]


Interested in joining the studies? 

The Brain In Motion II study is currently recruiting participants between the ages of 50 and 80 years old into early 2018. Call 403-210-7315 or email bimstudy@ucalgary.ca to learn more.

For research volunteer opportunities and to learn more, contact Dr. Eric Smith at 403-944-1594.