Brain Power

These two Canadian researchers are exploring new ways to support and protect the brain

(l to r)  Dr. Morgan Barense on the University of Toronto campus, where she is a professor and Canada Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience. Photo by Reynard Li. Dr. Robert Sutherland at the University of Lethbridge in front of MRI equipment he uses in his research. Photo by Jaime Vedres.

(l to r) Dr. Morgan Barense on the University of Toronto campus, where she is a professor and Canada Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience. Photo by Reynard Li. Dr. Robert Sutherland at the University of Lethbridge in front of MRI equipment he uses in his research. Photo by Jaime Vedres.

Dr. Morgan Barense

Most people routinely use their smart phones as memory aids. We’ll use the record function to take audio notes or reminisce over past events via the “Memories” function on Facebook. But can smart phone technology also help people living with dementia hold on to their memories? 

Dr. Morgan Barense. Photo by Reynard Li.

Dr. Morgan Barense. Photo by Reynard Li.

That’s the question Dr. Morgan Barense first discussed with a colleague over lunch in 2014. 

Now, almost six years later, Barense, a professor and Canada Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Toronto, and her lab team have created a mobile device app that acts as an external hippocampus, helping those in the earlier stages of dementia to successfully retain memories. 

The hippocampus is located in the temporal lobe, the inner folds of the bottom of the brain. One of its functions is to help us process experiences and turn them into memories. It’s also typically one of the first areas to be impaired by Alzheimer’s disease, which can result in memory loss and affect the ability to make new long-term memories. Barense and her colleagues thought that if they could mimic the memory functions of the hippocampus, the effects of dementia could be delayed.

With funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, they set to work on an app dubbed the Hippocamera. It allows users to use video to record, label and replay an event they would like to remember, such as a birthday party. The brain is then helped to retain the event as a long-term memory through repeatedly watching the video on the app. 

Not only does it make memories better, but it’s also good for brain health because you’re juicing up the circuits in a way that’s going to help them be protective from the disease.
— Dr. Morgan Barense

“The idea is, if we can circumvent the hippocampus and get these memories to the rest of the brain, users stand a fighting chance of remembering them at least in some form,” Barense says. 

The Hippocamera is much more than a video app. To mimic the hippocampus, Barense and her team built features into the app that compress and replay the videos at an accelerated rate, similar to the way the hippocampus naturally replays memories. The events are also separately labelled and clearly distinguished from one another.

Perhaps most importantly, the user also needs to regularly re- watch each event to convert it into a long-term memory. To facilitate this, the app senses when users are idle, which can often be when they’d naturally reminisce about recent events, and vibrates their phones to remind them to review the recorded memories several times throughout the day. Barense is still researching exactly how many times an event should be watched in order for the rest of the brain, including the neocortex (the outer part of the brain), to integrate it into long-term memory.

Barense’s testing has shown that using the Hippocamera app enhanced users’ hippocampal function, creating a 25-per cent boost in what she calls “episodic richness,” which is the ability to re-experience a memory rather than simply recalling its basic facts. Barense is hoping that continued testing will also provide evidence that using the app may have a preventative effect and even slow the progress of dementia. 

“The app makes memories better, but it’s also good for brain health because you’re juicing up the circuits in a way that’s going to help them be protective from the disease,” she says. 

Barense hopes to have the app commerciallly available by the end of 2019.

Dr. Robert Sutherland

Figuring out why some people develop dementia and others don’t can give scientists a better idea of how to potentially treat the disease. 

Dr. Robert Sutherland. Photo by Jaime Vedres.

Dr. Robert Sutherland. Photo by Jaime Vedres.

For the past three years, Dr. Robert Sutherland, a professor and chair of the department of Neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge and the director of the Canadian Centre for Behavioral Neuroscience, has been working with his colleagues, Drs. Bruce McNaughton and Majid Mohajerani, to study something called cognitive reserve. 

Cognitive reserve seemingly protects people from developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s, even if their brains show markers of the disease. 

“The idea is that some people have processes in the brain that provide them with resilience against Alzheimer’s disease,” Sutherland says. “Their brains acquire the disease, but they’re still able to manage in the face of the disease process in their brain. We call that means of resilience ‘cognitive reserve.’”

Why some people have more of this protective cognitive reserve than others is still unknown. Research shows that people who have higher levels of education, more complex language skills and the ability to speak multiple languages tend to have higher levels of cognitive reserve. Since Sutherland can’t test the causation of this on humans (for instance, we don’t know if university graduates pursue higher education because they have high cognitive reserve or if they have high cognitive reserve because of that brain stimulation), he’s conducting his experiments on mice. 

The lowest level ambition that we would have in this project is to understand the causal connection between things like childhood education and cognitive stimulation and Alzheimer’s disease.
— Dr. Robert Sutherland

In the lab, Sutherland has put the human Alzheimer’s disease into the mice’s genomes and introduced enrichment (the mouse equivalent of getting a PhD or learning to speak Italian) to see if the “educated” mice will develop protection against cognitive deterioration in ways that the “non-educated” mice do not. Sutherland is watching to see how the connections within the mice’s brains change with additional cognitive reserve. 

The work is still in the research stage, but the hope is, if Sutherland can figure out exactly how the cognitive reserve function is protecting a mouse’s brain from Alzheimer’s and how it can be increased, scientists can eventually develop means of treatment that either prevents or even reverses Alzheimer’s in human patients. 

“The ideal outcome would be that we come up with some kind of therapeutic approach, say a pill, that restores youthfulness in the cortex and allows the cortex to be rebuilt,” Sutherland says. 

Even if that outcome doesn’t present itself immediately, Sutherland’s work could have significant impact. Simply proving that a lifetime of challenging one’s brain with education or cognitive “exercise” can decrease instances of Alzheimer’s would be a result that all of us can apply to our own lives.

“The lowest level ambition that we would have in this project is to understand the causal connection between things like childhood education and cognitive stimulation and Alzheimer’s disease,” he says. “The translation potential for that is that we get that information out to families and schools and in government policy to try to make it a key part of dementia prevention strategy.” [ ]