Dr. Bryan Kolb played a founding role in the study of neuroscience. As a neuroscientist at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN), Kolb’s primary interests are in brain development, brain plasticity, and brain changes over time, including after injury. A recipient of the Order of Canada, Kolb has published five books and more than 400 articles and chapters. In the process, and with the help of a pioneering faculty and research team, Kolb has turned the University of Lethbridge, a relatively young institution currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, into a hotbed for neuroscience research.

Reducing the effects of early adversity on the brain

Over the past two decades, Kolb’s research has focused on understanding how early experiences alter brain and behavioural development, in both positive and negative ways, including whether it is possible to intervene after negative events and reverse, or at least reduce, the effects of early adversity.

“Our brains actually form using what I call the Michelangelo Technique,” explains Kolb. “Much like he did when chiselling David from a solid block, we start out with a brain that has two-fold more cells than an adult brain before environmental chisels start shedding cells once we are born.”

Animal research by Kolb, his colleague Dr. Robbin Gibb, and their students has even shown that a fathers’ experiences before conception and a mothers’ experiences while pregnant can change the brains of their offspring and those of subsequent generations. Realizing the value of this knowledge not just to neuroscience, but also to society in general, Kolb is now dedicating much of his time to talking about the implications of this important discovery.

“Given my age, I see my role changing,” says the 70-year-old Kolb. “I give a lot of public talks to try and bring this knowledge to the communities not only in southern Alberta, but beyond, to try to explain some of these things in words that people can understand.”

Using neuroscience to help native communities heal

One of Kolb’s most memorable talks was a public lecture in Lac La Biche, AB, attended by many First Nations elders. Kolb spoke about how stress and abuse during childhood can cause certain genes in the brain to be turned on or off, and how these changes can be passed from one generation to another — altering the behaviour of the offspring. Through this explanation, the elders began to see the problem of residential schools in an entirely new light.

“It gives us an explanation for how severe stress, for example in residential schools, could cross generations and cause all kinds of problems later,” says Kolb. “So how can we change this? I think the place to start is recognizing why it’s happening.”

Thanks to institutions like the CCBN, recognition is certainly beginning to spread. But the wide-ranging societal implications of the ongoing research, being conducted by Kolb at the University of Lethbridge, suggests the most important work — actually reversing the neurological effects of early adversity — is still to come.