According to a Alzheimer Society of Canada 2022 study, more than 600,000 Canadians are living with some form of dementia. By 2050, that number has the potential to grow to two million people.
The devastating mental and physical deterioration these diseases cause can be a living nightmare for sufferers as well as the friends and families who care for them.
For Concordia Public Scholar Stephanie Tremblaystopping the waves of neurological diseases starts with prevention.
She studies the impact of cardiovascular disease and various risk factors on brain health using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). We hope to discover early markers that could predict dementia and stroke so that these diseases can be more effectively prevented in the future.
Her doctoral research is funded by Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
Tremblay’s passion to ensure that fewer Canadians live with the serious consequences of neurological decline is both academic and personal.
As a former elite athlete with an academic background in kinesiology, she was also close to tragic events. These experiences were formative in shaping her current research.
‘Changes begin to occur in the brain up to 20 years before diagnosis’
You started your academic career at Concordia Institute of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology with the goal of becoming an athletic therapist. You are now in Department of Physics. What has changed?
Stephanie Tremblay: My academic focus changed when I was in a transition period in my athletic career. I was at judo national team, and I put all my energy into qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. When that didn’t happen, I began to question my focus on athletic performance as the be-all and end-all.
During that time I also lost two people to suicide. Obviously it had a big impact on me. I started thinking about the brain, and the mechanisms and factors that lead to mental health problems.
That’s when I decided I wanted to do neuroscience research. So I met with Richard Courtemanche, the professor who taught the only neuroscience course I took during my undergraduate studies, and told him I wanted to do research in his lab. This was the beginning of my academic journey in this field.
Talk about your master’s degree and how it influenced what you do now.
ST: I came in with no research experience, but Richard was a great mentor. I learned a lot working with him, from experiment design and programming to formulating good research questions and navigating the academic landscape.
My master’s research investigated the network in the brain between the cerebellum and the prefrontal cortex.
Most people think of the cerebellum as part of the nervous system that helps us with motor functions such as posture and balance. But what is less well known is its role in cognition and emotion—knowledge that is gaining ground in the scientific community. It also means that the cerebellum is involved in mood disorders, and has been used as a target for neurostimulation to treat depression and other disorders in humans.
So I became interested in studying this network and how it responds to cerebellar stimulation at different frequencies. How can we change the activity in this network involved in emotion regulation through stimulation of the cerebellum?
By the end of my master’s degree, I was taking a physics class to improve my skills in quantitative research. There I appointed my current doctoral supervisor, Claudine Gauthierassociate professor of physics, and was introduced to the fascinating research conducted in her laboratory.
Let’s get to the heart of what you’re currently investigating. What do you study when it comes to painting?
ST: Basically, I’m interested in how people go from having a healthy brain to developing cognitive diseases. How can we use MRI measures to identify decline as early as possible so that appropriate interventions can be implemented?
We know that people with hypertension and cardiovascular disease have a higher risk of developing dementia. So, I study the brains of those with cardiovascular problems who do not yet have neurological disorders such as dementia or stroke. I want to see if we can start to see patterns through the images that will warn us that the decline is starting. Detecting abnormalities at an early stage could allow interventions to be initiated at a time when there is greater potential for recovery and could potentially help prevent neurological disorders.
The focus of my research is on white matter, the part of the brain that includes the fibers that connect different regions of the brain. I look at the health and structure of those fibers that allow our brain to communicate effectively between regions.
One of the things I look at is myelin, the insulating layer around nerve cells that speeds up communication in the brain. If we lose myelin, then that loss leads to cognitive slowing.
I also work with a dataset from Stop-AD center from Douglas Research Center in Montreal. The participants in this study are elderly people who are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease because of their family history, but who were not cognitively impaired when they entered the study. By studying this at-risk population, we hope to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and contribute worldwide effort in early detection and prevention.
Why is early detection by imaging so important?
ST: In diseases such as dementia, we now know that changes begin to occur in the brain up to 20 years before diagnosis. This gives us a time frame when we should be able to detect these pathological processes.
I am particularly interested in addressing cognitive decline through lifestyle changes, such as smoking cessation, exercise and proper nutrition. If we know someone is at higher risk, then those are things we can apply early.
New drugs are emerging to help, but they work best when detected in the early stages.
Outside of the lab, you’ve obviously returned to judo. Tell me about it.
I have recently been hired as a training partner for a Paralympic athlete who is hoping to medal at the Paris Paralympics in 2024. I train with this athlete twice a week and travel with her to tournaments, and hopefully to Paris next September.
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