Basic Neuroscience

The Division’s basic neuroscience research is primarily conducted within the Brain Research Center at the UBC Campus. Areas of research include a focus on neuroimmunology, neurovirology and neurochemistry.

Diseases of the brain and spinal cord affect more than a billion people world-wide, especially in developed countries. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are the most common neurological disorders in the elderly, and multiple sclerosis in younger adults, but there is a very wide range of diverse diseases associated with the malfunctioning of neurons and their supporting cells in nervous tissues. While genetic mutations may be at the root of about 10% of cases for the more common neurological disorders, environmental and life style factors appear to play the predominant roles in the development of these pathologies. For most neurological disorders, current knowledge is rudimentary and little is known about their causes, proper diagnosis is usually challenging, and existing treatments are largely inadequate. Basic research conducted in the Division of Neurology is focused on improving our understanding of the brain to better diagnose and treat these confounding and devastating illnesses.

The sheer structural complexity of the brain, spinal cord and other nervous tissue have been major barriers towards understanding their operations under healthy and pathological circumstances. The average three pound brain in the adult human body features over 200 billion cells, composed primarily of around 86 billion neurons and a larger and still controversial number of glial cells and about a hundred other different types of supporting cells. Together, these cells account for about 20% of the body’s total energy requirements to support the active brain. The average neuron has about 10,000 direct synaptic connections to other neurons, with some featuring as many as 200,000 connections. Brain cells have the largest number of actived genes in the human genome compared to any other tissue. Research by the faculty in the Division of Neurology ranges from visualization of the gross structures of the healthy and diseased brain with some of the most advanced non-invasive imaging techniques in the world right down to exploring the molecular structures of the genes and the proteins that they encode in the cells of the brain and spinal cord.

Dr. Yu Tian Wang’s laboratory has been focused on understanding the fundamental mechanisms controlling synaptic transmission among neurons in the brain, and the dysfunction of these mechanisms in the pathogenesis of brain disorders such as epilepsy, stroke, and learning deficits. Dr. Wang and his colleagues have made significant progress on elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying the formation of learning and memory. Through these mechanistic studies, they have developed and tested several interference peptides as novel therapeutics for treatments of developmental abnormalities such as abnormal ocular dominance plasticity (amblyopia) and learning and memory disorders in various animal models. Recently, they have identified a novel glutamate binding site on glycine and on GABA-A chloride ion channel receptors, leading to the screening and identification of novel ligands that may be developed into therapeutic small molecules for reducing seizure and/or brain injuries following stroke.

Dr. Steven Pelech’s laboratory has explored the composition and architecture of the signalling networks of regulatory proteins that govern the operations of neurons and other cells. His research is particularly focused on tracking a class of enzymes called protein kinases, which regulate other proteins by switching them on or off by a process known as phosphorylation. Abnormal phosphorylation of certain proteins appears to underlie many diverse neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, amylotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and epilepsy. Inhibitors of protein kinases have recently proven to be effective and powerful tools for treatment of cancer and these drugs may have wider application for therapeutic applications in neurological disorders. Dr. Pelech and his colleagues have been developing antibody microarrays to monitor the levels of hundreds of kinases and other signalling proteins in minute tissue and biofluid specimens to identify disease biomarkers and potential drug targets.

Many of the other Division of Neurology faculty also contribute to the advancement of basic neuroscience research, and they are profiled within the clinical-focused programs within our division. For example, Dr. Neil Cashman has been a pioneer in the study of prions, which are infectious proteins that cause wasting diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and mad cow disease. His research has revealed that mis-folded prion-like proteins may play significant roles in other neurological diseases such as ALS and Alzheimer’s disease.