Brain Canada and Heart & Stroke award $6 million to research

“We are thrilled by the calibre of the two teams and the thoughtful, innovative research programs they have designed,” says Dr. Viviane Poupon, President, and CEO of Brain Canada. “By bringing together leading and diverse experts from across the country, including people with lived experience and Indigenous peoples, they will drive discovery that goes beyond what would be possible for a single researcher or a single institution.”

Heart-brain research

Dr. Liu (left) Principal Investigator of BHRIITE (Brain-Heart Research Integrative Innovation Team Endeavor) with Mary Armour (centre), a patient with lived experience and member of his research team, and colleague
Dr. David Smyth.
Photo courtesy of Brain Canada

The four-year projects will study urgent questions linking heart and brain health with the aim of making changes to patient care and improving outcomes for people in Canada. Currently, one person dies in Canada every five minutes from heart disease, stroke or vascular cognitive impairment, outpacing other diseases. In fact, 20% more people die of heart-brain related conditions than from all cancers. The impact of these heart-brain connections on people’s lives and on the health care system is profound, especially given our health system is designed on a “single disease” model – with different conditions being treated by different specialists. These projects challenge that system through broad collaboration.

Teams will begin work on their projects in 2022 and there are plans to bring the two teams together to share updates on their work as early as 2023. “Putting research into action by sharing knowledge and results are critical components of this award,” says Doug Roth, CEO of Heart & Stroke. “We are confident these teams, these projects and this approach to research will accelerate a much-needed shift around how we explore heart disease and brain disorders.”

“Putting research into action by sharing knowledge and results

 are critical components of this award.”  – Doug Roth, CEO of Heart & Stroke

“Our program stems from speaking with patients who were falling through the gaps created when heart and brain diseases are treated and researched separately,” explains Dr. Liu. “We aim to change the fundamental disconnect between brain and heart conditions and develop new tools to predict who is at risk and how severely with new diagnostic blood tests and new ways to take pictures of the heart and brain. Together with patient partners, we will also test new treatments that can be used to protect both the heart and the brain.”

heart brain research

Trudy Hall, participant in the UNEARTH CVD (Using Novel Approaches for the Early Recognition of Transient Ischemic Attack, Heart Failure and Connections with Vascular Dementia) study, led by Dr. Douglas Lee.
Photo courtesy of Trudy Hall

This diverse team will integrate patients’ lived experience with expertise in molecular manipulation, in-depth cognitive and cardiac testing, pharmacology, systems biology, clinical trials, epidemiology, biostatistical modelling, machine learning and artificial intelligence. It will also include components such as an Indigenous-led curriculum to build a network of Indigenous health mentors and trainees to support Indigenous capacity to engage in research.

Four years ago, Mary Armour had a cardiac arrest, at age 56, at her office at the Ottawa airport. Several days later, Armour woke up in the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, where she was told her heart had stopped. She also learned that the team evaluating her condition had been so concerned about potential loss of cognitive function.

Armour, who now has a young grandson, attributes her recovery to the excellent care she received. She hopes her collaboration with Dr. Liu will help to create better outcomes in the future.

“When this opportunity came up, I really wanted to be part of the group,” she says. “I think about my family and potential genetic influences that could put them at risk, so I’m happy to be able to contribute to a better understanding of the heart-brain connection.”

Dr. Lee is working to diagnose stroke earlier in order to prevent devastating effects like paralysis. Included in his research team is Trudy Hall, a mom who suffered a cardiac arrest while walking her young daughters to school. The experience has taken a significant toll on Hall’s family, including her daughters, and she was determined to continue searching for answers.

“I felt there is definitely a need for this kind of research,” she says, adding that as a nurse, she is trained to look at the whole person instead of focusing on conditions associated with single organs. “Patients with heart conditions and their families are all concerned about potential issues affecting other parts of their bodies, and especially cognitive impairment.”

The team will also develop new methods to diagnose early declines in brain function, so that patients can receive preventive strategies and to study the intersection between heart failure and dementia which may radically change how doctors treat these conditions in the future.

“I’m happy to be able to contribute to a better understanding of the heart-brain connection.” – Trudy Hall, research participant

Funding for the Heart-Brain Connection IMPACT Award has been made possible by the Canada Brain Research Fund (CBRF), an innovative arrangement between the Government of Canada (through Health Canada) and Brain Canada Foundation, and Heart & Stroke.

This story was produced by Randall Anthony Communications, and a version was originally published in the Globe and Mail on September 12, 2022, as part of The Heart-Brain Connection custom content feature.

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