Drs. Milos Popovic and Taufik Valiante want people with neurological conditions to get better — and fast. For the past six years, Dr. Milos Popovic, the Research Director at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI), and Dr. Taufik Valiante have merged engineering and medical science to create neuroimplant devices that help people with serious neurological and neurodegenerative conditions do just that.

Known as neuromodulation devices, “these technologies are designed to change the behaviour of specific neurons in the brain to improve patients’ health and daily functioning,” says Dr. Popovic, who is also a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. “With Parkinson’s disease, for example, you can implant these devices deep into the brain and by stimulating a certain place, frequency, and intensity, you stop the patient’s tremors and shaking, so they can now feed themselves and live a normal life.” Similar technology is being develop by Dr. Valiante to prevent seizures in epilepsy patients.

The Toronto Rehab Foundation supports much of TRI’s research and innovations, including the jointly-funded (Canadian Foundation for Innovation and Ontario Research Fund) Centre for Advancing Neurotechnological Innovation to Application (CRANIA). Located at the University Health Network in Toronto and the University of Toronto, the CRANIA Project brings together engineers, neurosurgeons , neurologists, neuroscientists, mathematicians, material scientists, and computer scientists under one umbrella to advance the development of neuromodulation therapies.

Neurological disorders costly to families and society

Dr. Valiante believes there’s a moral imperative to CRANIA’s work. “Right now,  we don’t have very good treatments for many neurological conditions,” he says. By 2025, these conditions are expected to cost society more than cancer and heart disease combined, in part due to an aging population with the attendant conditions of stroke, age-related cognitive impairment, and Parkinson’s. Additionally, pharmaceutical companies are phasing out drug development for neurodegenerative disorders. The increasing demand for better treatments of the brain is in part due to the increased life expectancy and the need for family members to care for those affected.

With about 3 million Canadians already caring for someone with a neurological disorder, there’s tremendous urgency to find solutions to address this research and therapeutic gap, notes Dr. Popovic. Without solutions, the burden of care to patients, their families, and society will be staggering. “We often forget it’s not just the person dealing with cognitive and physical defects, it’s also the family members having to give up their jobs to assist these patients,” he says.

To ease this burden of care, CRANIA’s team of over 50 experts is hard at work designing sophisticated tools that will help these patients improve their quality of life. “We’re really excited because as solutions emerge, patients in Ontario and Canada will be the first ones to receive them,” says Dr. Popovic.

With the world-leading Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and Krembil Neuroscience Centre, and top engineering faculty, Toronto is the ideal city for this work.  “We have a long history of doing neuromodulation here, particularly with Parkinson’s disease, but we think there are many conditions that could potentially be treated with these types of devices like epilepsy, depression, stroke, and spinal cord injuries,” says Dr. Popovic.

CRANIA’s success in getting these therapies to patients will depend on continuous funding and donations from people and organizations who share Drs. Popovic and Valiante’s passion for making people with neurological disorders better — faster.