The nascence of neuroscience in southern Alberta

Illustration of a brain hooked up to machines and testing equipment.

The nascence of neuroscience in southern Alberta

How a small university in a little city in southern Alberta spurred the growth of modern neuroscience
May 9, 2016

Lethbridge, a largely agricultural and industrial city in southern Alberta, has one relatively small university. Originally intended as a liberal education institution when it began nearly 50 years ago, the University of Lethbridge didn’t offer PhD programs, nor had it yet established a reputation for research in any particular field. But by 2005, the school was home to the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN), a world-leading brain research facility, and had also opened the first department of neuroscience in Canada. So what changed? Well, it all started with a handful of very persistent neuroscientists, a bit of luck and some remarkably good timing.

The school’s first two neuroscientists, Ian Whishaw and Bryan Kolb, arrived at the university in the 1970s. At the time, neuroscience as an academic field was in its infancy. There were very few departments of neuroscience or degrees in the field. When Whishaw arrived in 1970, Lethbridge had no labs suitable for neuroscience research, so he had to use the ones at the University of Calgary each summer. It was only after Kolb arrived in 1976 that the University began to renovate human experimental psychology labs to provide space for behavioural neuroscience research.

In 1980, Kolb and Whishaw published Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology, which is now in its 7th edition. The textbook included research that demonstrated that laboratory animals could be used to understand the human brain. It was a relatively new idea, and it was the first sign that Lethbridge was doing something different. Over time, two more neuroscientists joined the group. The labs were renovated and re-renovated in an effort to create more space suitable for neuroscience research. “It was like trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” says Kolb. “It’s better to start new.”

Since very few people knew what neuroscience was at the time, the group made a point of reaching out. They started giving public lectures and visiting elementary and high schools to talk about neuroscience. They wanted to create a graduate program, but the first step was acquiring an adequate facility.

By the late 1990s, the university had set out to create a centre of research excellence in water. “But by coincidence, the neuroscience group emerged first because of funding opportunities that appeared provincially and federally,” says Robert Sutherland, the current director of the CCBN. “I think from the point of view of the administration this came about initially by accident.”

In 1998, Kolb and Whishaw asked the then-president of the university, Howard Tennant, for more space. Their request was turned down. But the next day Tennant pulled him aside to tell him they had funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). “He said, ‘Why don’t we just give you a new building?’ I thought he was joking,” Kolb recalls.

While the CCBN was being constructed, the province granted the university its first PhD program in neuroscience, which allowed them to contribute to the next generation of researchers. “It was an ambitious university precedent,” says Sutherland.

The CFI provided the initial investment and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research provided additional building funding and invested in research personnel, allowing the centre to hire four more people after 2001. Sutherland said the funding was “a breath of fresh air” that drew bright minds to the team and lured back past faculty who had left due to limited funding and facilities. He himself was one of them. Frustrated by the lack of options, Sutherland had left Lethbridge in 1991 to take a position at the University of New Mexico. He returned in 2001.

The CCBN gave neuroscientists in Lethbridge a solid foundation from which to dream. “I think it allowed us to imagine creating something that, even the day before we walked into the building, we couldn’t do,” says Sutherland.

The centre was originally built to house 10 researchers, even though at the time there were only five. They didn’t have enough equipment to fill the building, but the group did their best to make use of it, afraid that if they didn’t, the university would find another purpose for the unused space. Fortunately, the centre grew so rapidly that it had to expand after only 18 months. A few years later, the department of neuroscience was formed.

And so, the school has become home to one of the top centres for neuroscience in Canada, and a “go to” place for behavioural neuroscience in the world. The centre also attracts researchers from other countries, like Gerlinde Metz who came from Germany to become a CCBN faculty member. Her recent work has demonstrated how the stress experienced by grandparents and great-grandparents can cross generations and affect the cognitive behaviour of their descendants.  The CCBN has been home to other scientific breakthroughs as well, such as insights into how prenatal alcohol produces changes in the developing brain, leading to lifelong cognitive or behavioural changes.

The facility now houses 16 researchers, and has branched out into more human, clinically oriented research. They are currently installing a state-of-the-art human MRI that will help them in researching brain injury, aging, addictions, and memory problems. This will be the CCBN’s fourth major expansion. Simultaneously, the University of Lethbridge is breaking ground for a new science building on May 5, 2016. The CCBN will be able to use this building as a laboratory and training space, as well as to collaborate with researchers in biochemistry, biology, and physics.

Today, the push that started with a couple of neuroscientists back in the 1970s has helped shift the school’s approach to research. “There are now several centres of research excellence around the University of Lethbridge,” says Sutherland. “But someone has to start it, and show that it can be done.”