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Past Winner
2018 NSERC Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering

Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering

Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering

Université Laval

Understanding the brain is among the greatest challenges facing scientists in the 21st century. It is our most complex organ, a tangle of circuitry that governs how we perceive, behave, understand and interact with the world around us, yet we have almost no idea how it works. A large part of the problem is that it’s so fragile and difficult to study. Most methods require patients to be stationary or can only focus on a tiny area of the brain instead of the entire grand neural network. If we are really going to learn about the brain, we need to observe the signals being exchanged by the 100 billion neurons in our head while they are freely communicating with one another.

A unique team of researchers at Université Laval’s Cervo Brain Research Centre and the Centre for Optics, Photonics and Lasers, is collaborating on the next generation of neuroscience tools. Using their combined expertise in neuroscience, photonics, fibre-optics technology and materials sciences, the research team has developed a series of innovations that are allowing researchers to observe neurons in dialogue.

The team designed microscopic “optrodes” made from very fine glass only a few microns thick. These optrodes use light to control neurons, switching them on or off, so researchers can see how other parts of the brain respond. Since these optrodes can transmit data wirelessly, scientists can monitor brain activity as a subject moves about and interacts with its environment. Building on that success, the team developed advanced microscopy systems that make it possible to capture, at high speed, images of brain tissue while it is moving, overcoming a major hurdle in existing microscopy machines. And cleverly carved laser beams within the system provide high-resolution images of large areas of tissue down to single nerve fibres, providing researchers with their clearest view yet of brain tissue in action. With this technology, scientists can monitor the progression and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Thanks to the Université Laval team’s breakthroughs, we stand to learn vast amounts about conditions like pain, mental health and various neurological diseases. Ultimately, we can use this knowledge to understand how drugs work on the brain and develop new treatments and better pharmaceuticals.

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