Tucked at the foot of the Rockies, a short drive north of the U.S. border sits Lethbridge — a place of balmy Chinook-inspired weather and the commercial hub of southern Alberta.

But it’s also the epicenter of the country’s cutting edge brain research — the University of Lethbridge’s Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience.

Although the CCBN officially became an institute in December, the neuroscience department itself was Canada’s first.

“Neuroscience has been an area of priority and significant pride for the University of Lethbridge since the early days of our establishment,” says Dr. Lesley Brown, interim vice president of research. “We have some of the most prominent minds and highly established researchers in the country who are producing research at the frontiers of knowledge in this field and contributing to the training of the next generation of neuroscience researchers.”

Home to 16 lead investigators, a cohort of post-doctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students, the CCBN has set its sights on some of the biggest challenges that perplex brain researchers today.

“Our researchers are advancing our understanding of the brain, its architecture and its function, across a broad range of domains,” adds Brown.

Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience, highly established researchers are conducting cutting edge brain research.
Photo: University of Lethbridge

Cutting edge research

At the moment with Canada’s baby boomer demographics, studying early memory decline and degradation associated with aging is of chief concern.

“We can actually look directly at the circuitry that underlies episodic memory while the (lab mouse) is successfully recalling or unsuccessfully recalling,” says Dr. Robert Sutherland, chairman of the CCBN.

By running the mice through virtual reality, researchers are able to test their memory of place and watch as the neurons and circuits fire up, or rather, fail to as a result of aging.

“This is, to my knowledge, the only place in Canada where this population-level neural recording integrated with virtual reality is occurring,” adds Sutherland. “In terms of this kind of processing, it’s at the cutting edge.”

It’s the same pioneering work that drew Dr. Michael Kyweriga to the CCBN for his postdoctoral studies focusing on the causes of tinnitus — the incessant ringing that people experience after a loud concert or discharging a firearm.

Tinnitus significantly affects our men and women in uniform, ranking as the number one disability claim by both the US Dept of Veteran Affairs and the RCMP. It’s a subjective experience that neuroscientists have yet to really find a cure for but as a veteran, Kyweriga knows the challenges they face and hopes to use the CCBN’s tools and expertise to figure out how the pieces fit together on a neurological level.

“Neuroscience has been an area of priority and significant pride for the University of Lethbridge since the early days of our establishment.”

“Other people have been working on this but without having the advanced imaging techniques that we have at Lethbridge,” he adds. “We have all these tools and techniques here, already in place.”

While the research at CCBN runs the gamut, Sutherland notes that the centre is poised to tackle new challenges as the hurdles facing boomers taper off.

“The underappreciated research questions surround early (developmental) impacts that continue to take their toll on the brain,” say Sutherland. “We have four or five of our researchers who have that at the forefront of their work.”