Q: Are altered brain chemistry and metabolism key underlying features of neurological and neuropsychiatric conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia?
Q: Can we detect these neurochemical and neurometabolic alterations non-invasively?
Q: By studying and understanding these alterations, can we devise more effective treatments against neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders?
These are a few of the overarching questions that guide and motivate the research in Jamie Near's Lab. Yes, altered brain chemistry and metabolism are in fact key features of many neurological and neuropsychiatric conditions. And yes, we can quantify these changes non-invasively using in vivo magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), a technique closely related to MRI.
Jamie’s research is focused on 1) developing new MRS techniques for characterizing brain chemistry and metabolism, and 2) applying these tools towards the study of mental health and brain disorders in both humans and rodent models of disease. The goal of Jamie's research is to develop a better understanding of the underlying neurochemistry of brain health and disease, leading to improved therapy and prevention of brain disorders.
But why study the rodent brain with MRS? Despite being anatomically dissimilar, rodent and human brains have a high degree of neurochemical similarity. As seen in Figure 1 below, MRS scans in human and rodent brains reveal many of the same prominent neurochemical signals, with neurotransmitters (Glutamate and GABA), as well as other important metabolites showing similar concentrations in tissue. What's more, the neurochemical changes observed in animal disease models often parallel the pathological changes seen in their human counterparts. The vast majority of techniques used to study the animal brain cannot be used safely in humans. So, the ability of MRS to detect neurochemical changes non-invasively in both animals and humans makes it a powerful tool for translating animal research findings to humans.
One exciting ongoing development in Jamie Near's lab is the use of carbon-13 (13C) as a type of contrast agent in MRS experiments. By infusing a 13C labelled substrate such as glucose, MRS can be used to dynamically track the transfer of 13C label into downstream metabolic products, thus offering a unique window into brain metabolism (See Figure 2 below). Jamie's lab is developing 13C MRS as a tool for metabolic imaging in both humans and animal models. In particular, one of Jamie's MSc Students in the IPN department, Steven Zhang, is using 13C MRS to study altered glucose metabolism in a rat model of Alzheimer's disease.
Jamie is always accepting applicantions from outstanding IPN students of all academic backgrounds. Some of the projects in Jamie's lab require a background in physics and engineering; examples of such projects include radiofrequency coil development, MRS pulse sequence development, and development of novel data processing and analysis tools. Other projects require a neuroscientific expertise for application of non-invasive MRS methods in animal models or human subjects. If Jamie's research is of interest to you, please don't hesitate to get in touch!!
A bit of background about Jamie: He holds an undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics from Queen’s University and a PhD in Biophysics from Western University’s Robarts Research Institute. Following his PhD, Jamie did his postdoctoral studies at the University of Oxford, UK. In 2012, Jamie came to McGill an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, with associate memberships in the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BBME) and the Integrated Program in Neuroscience (IPN). Jamie's lab is based at the Douglas Hospital, in the newly constructed Centre d'Imagerie Cérébrale, which houses both a 3T human MRI scanner and a 7T small animal MRI scanner.