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Research & development

Baycrest and partners to create virtual brain

TORONTO – Baycrest is leading a team of international scientists in a mammoth project to create the world’s first functional, virtual brain. The effort puts Canada in a global race to pull off a neuroscience feat that is comparable to decoding the human genome.

The achievement could revolutionize how clinicians assess and treat various brain disorders, including cognitive impairment caused by stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are developing the first electronic atlas of human functional networks in the brain,” says Randy McIntosh, project leader and director/senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI), ranked among the top cognitive neuroscience programs in the world.

The RRI has partnered with scientists from the U.S., Australia, Spain, France and the Netherlands to construct a virtual brain that will replicate typical patterns of brain activity that occur when people are engaged in a thinking task, such as remembering a phone number, reading a book, or problem-solving.

As mental processes unfold, the brain can combine the actions of several networks. Mapping complex integrative brain dynamics has been described as writing the ultimate symphony score for the working brain and it requires experts in sophisticated mathematical modeling techniques. It is also a huge informatics challenge that requires uploading thousands of brain pattern configurations from lab data into several super computers.

Once all of the data of a normal, healthy functioning brain from childhood to old age is uploaded to build the foundation of the virtual brain, dynamics will be added to map the interplay between different brain areas during a mental task.

The virtual brain will have the same functional architecture of a real, working brain. It will not only become a powerful tool for researchers, but provide clinicians (who are involved in the assessment, maintenance and rehabilitation of brain function in patients) with a cutting edge “predictive modeling” tool.

For example, a 55-year-old patient suffers a stroke and is left with moderate cognitive impairment. The patient’s unique neural architecture post-stroke will be uploaded into the virtual brain to see how the synthetic model responds to the disruption of normal network patterns and attempts to re-stabilize.

This will assist the clinician in identifying the best options for cognitive interventions that target specific areas in the brain.

Global race
The main competition for the Canadian-led project is the Blue Brain Project in Switzerland. Swiss project director Henry Markram predicts his team will unveil their functional brain software within the next 10 years. Dr. McIntosh, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, says his team has a similar 10-year horizon.

Located in Toronto, Baycrest is one of the world’s premier academic health sciences centers focused on aging. Through its strengths in research and education, Baycrest is using the power of inquiry and discovery to improve the health of tomorrow’s elderly while at the same time care for and enhance the quality of life of the elderly today.

Baycrest provides care and service to approximately 2,500 people a day through the Baycrest Geriatric Health Care System, which includes a unique continuum of care from wellness programs, residential housing and outpatient clinics, to a 472-bed nursing home, and a 300- bed complex continuing care hospital facility with an acute care unit.

Posted Aug. 27/09.