Understanding the brain better
Even though the care provided to patients suffering from psychiatric disorders has improved significantly—particularly since the discovery of neuroleptics and antidepressant drugs—psychiatric illnesses continue to be a major public health issue.
The main disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression, are being treated with palliative care right now, mostly because of a lack of biological measures that would allow for rapid diagnosis and early and more effective management of the disease. This point is even more important given that these major disorders affect a relatively large proportion of the population and have a neurodevelopmental component (meaning they develop insidiously in infancy) that could allow for early intervention—and maybe even curative treatments—before disabling symptoms appear. In fact, some children of patients suffering from one of these major psychiatric disorders have been found to display a series of discrete abnormalities during infancy that will eventually get stronger and, years later, lead to the appearance of the disease and its accompanying disabling symptoms in young adults.
Identifying sets of vulnerability biomarkers and measuring, over time, the variations that reflect these discrete changes could make it possible to identify developmental risk trajectories in these children and, ultimately, lead to defining an infantile/juvenile syndrome occurring in different stages. This would open up new research possibilities for developing strategies to normalize these trajectories through treatment specific to each stage of the syndrome, and, thereby, prevent the appearance of these psychiatric diseases in their most severe forms.
Characterizing such risk trajectories, however, means needing to identify new biomarkers by studying cohorts of patients and their children, who are more at risk of developing a major mental disorder. That is the research goal of the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Neurophotonics: to develop a set of novel, powerful optical techniques to identify new vulnerability biomarkers for these major psychiatric illnesses.
The Chair’s research is possible, in part, due to the unique access to multigenerational cohorts recruited in eastern Quebec that have, in some cases, been followed for more than 20 years. It is also possible because of the many highly developed optics skills gathered together at Université Laval’s Centre d’optique et de photonique laser, and at the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Québec.
The Canada Excellence Research Chair in Neurophotonics will develop new, multimodal optical techniques at a very high resolution, in order to explore structure and cellular dynamics at the nanoscale. The “multimodal” aspect, which makes it possible to measure a large number of cellular parameters at the same time, will produce a very detailed vision of the cellular processes that lead to a true cellular profile that could be used to identify new biomarkers and create new theoretical etiological models.
The new optical approaches would, specifically, strengthen and complement the already highly effective arsenal of neuroimaging techniques, such as MRIs, which are starting to enable the detection of discrete anomalies in brain structure and function among at-risk children. The approaches will also help in identifying new cellular biomarkers, and, thereby, contribute to characterizing developmental risk trajectories among children of patients being treated in these multigenerational cohorts.