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How the Schroeder Institute for Brain Innovation and Recovery is reimagining neuroscience

The Schroeder Institute for Brain Innovation and Recovery at KITE is home to a team of engineering and clinical neuroscience experts who research and develop new therapies for brain-related disorders.

In 2017, philanthropist Walter Schroeder, who made his fortune founding the Dominion Bond Rating Service, and his wife Maria Schroeder, donated $20 million to the KITE Research Institute. 

The generous donation enabled the founding of The Schroeder Institute for Brain Innovation and Recovery, where a team of engineering and clinical neuroscience experts research and develop new therapies for brain-related disorders. 

Brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury affect an estimated 3.6 million Canadians living in the community and 170,000 in long-term care facilities, according to The National Population Health Study of Neurological Conditions from 2013. As the population ages, the numbers are projected to grow.  

Since its introduction, everyone at The Schroeder Institute has been working toward the common goal of improving the lives of those living with brain disorders and their families. This will, in turn, benefit Canadian society. New technological innovations such as distance therapy, machine learning, and neuromodulation are just a few examples of emerging technologies helping drive the research forward.

Group photo taken at the Walter and Maria Schroeder Institute for Brain Innovation and Recovery Unveiling, August 2019

Meet three of the scientists at The Schroeder Institute.

Distance Therapy

Dr. Robin Green specializes in traumatic brain injury (TBI) rehabilitation. With funding from the Schroeder gift, she helped develop The Telerehab Centre for Acquired Brain Injury, a research and treatment center for people living with TBIs. The two aims of the Centre are to study TBIs and offer therapy for long-term recovery. Research by Green has uncovered that, contrary to previous assumptions, TBI recovery is not linear. Sometimes patients lose recovery gains after their initial improvement. Green and her lab have been studying what causes this regression and what can prevent it. This led to the discovery that anxiety and lack of cognitive stimulation in early recovery can cause brain deterioration later on. These findings are already being used to help patients by intervening during that crucial time.

Online participatory therapy is offered in groups of five to eight which, according to Green, “can be surprisingly intimate.” Navigating through streets by memory using Google Street View is one example of therapeutic exercises patients do to improve their spatial memory skills. 

These days, online medical appointments are common, but they were being pioneered in 2017 when The Telerehab Centre began offering its services almost entirely online. As a result, patients only need to appear in person for MRIs. This is beneficial for patients living outside Toronto since getting to appointments can be difficult for those living with mobility issues. 

The Schroeder Institute also helps patients if they don’t have insurance or have trouble accessing the technology they need for remote treatment, such as computers or internet access. The Schroeders wanted their donation to assist in addressing economic inequalities, and immediately improve the quality of life for as many Ontarians as possible. By removing these barriers to access, The Telerehab Centre is doing just that.

Machine Learning 

Dr. Shehroz Khan and his team have been studying ways to detect, and even predict, agitation in people living with dementia. This would be useful to prevent accidents, such as falls and injuries to patients and staff, especially in chronically short-staffed nursing homes. The hope is to eventually be able to prevent dangerous incidents before they happen. 

Every dementia patient expresses agitation in their own unique way. Some people move around a lot when upset, while others don’t move at all but express themselves verbally. That’s why a personalized, multi-modal approach that analyzes different factors like motion, heart rate and skin temperature, is best. A human caregiver can easily learn which behaviors indicate when a patient is agitated but training a computer to do it – machine learning – is a challenge. 

Khan used raw data collected from multi-modal detecting devices to analyze agitation patterns. What sorts of detecting devices? A “Fitbit on steroids,” Khan laughs. One such device is the Empatica E4, a bracelet that patients wear to collect data. They also collected data from cameras set up in common areas of nursing homes.

Khan and his team analyzed the data collected from a nursing home lobby by using artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to establish what typical activity in the lobby looked like. The plan was to train the AI to detect atypical activity on its own. This wasn’t as easy as it sounded because all the activity in the busy lobby created noisy data that was difficult to sort from the clean data. However, this research has revealed incredible potential for this technology to make nursing homes safer for both the residents and staff in the future.

Neuromodulation

A large portion of the Schroeder donation went to CRANIA - The Center for Advancing Neurotechnological Innovation to Application. Scientists at CRANIA, and around the world, have been researching new treatment strategies for neurological disorders using neuromodulation devices. Neuromodulation is “the alteration of nerve activity through targeted delivery of a stimulus to specific neurological sites in the body.” These devices stimulate nerves to help restore function or relieve symptoms.

A promising area for neuromodulation devices is drug-resistant epilepsy. According to Dr. Taufik Valiante, co-founder of CRANIA and a neurosurgeon at the Krembil Brain Institute, epilepsy lends itself to this sort of research, because it displays an obviously detectable example of abnormal brain activity. 

Valiante has been working on a groundbreaking treatment for epilepsy involving a microchip implanted in the brain that uses machine learning to distinguish normal brain activity from abnormal brain activity over time. The chip is called NURIP, which stands for Neural Interface Processor. The research goal is to train the chip to sense when the brain is heading into a state where a seizure could happen and then to prevent it. NURIP would be connected to electrodes which would redirect the electrical activity toward a more normal state. 

Solving engineering problems involving the brain is so challenging because there is no map for such a complex structure. There are 80 billion neurons and 200 trillion connections in the brain, which make it difficult to make predictions about its behaviour. 

“We don't have a model that tells us that if you stimulate at this strength, with this frequency at this location, what will happen. So that's the hard problem we're trying to solve with NURIP,” explained Valiante. 

“We are at a very unique point in time from a computer science and an engineering point of view.”

That is why the Schroeder donation came at the perfect time. It is only now that many of these technological tools are becoming available to researchers at KITE, UHN and CRANIA.  Research is already helping improve the lives of Canadians living with brain disorders and there’s little doubt that many more will be helped in the future.  

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This story was produced as part of the KITEWorks content initiative, a partnership between The KITE Research Institute and the Storyworks program at Centennial College’s School of Communications, Media, Arts and Design.

As part of this program, KITE is collaborating with students in the Communications – Professional Writing (CMPW) program to gain real world experience by profiling the cutting edge research at our Institute.

A selection of stories produced through this partnership will be featured throughout the summer in this space and can be viewed in the KITEWorks magazine. More information about this collaboration can be found at this link

Read the magazine here.