Understanding the brain

Understanding the brain

Researchers mapping the brain are giving patients with disorders new hope.
March 1, 2003

Engineers can learn a lot from the structure of the brain.

That's the conclusion of Melvyn Goodale, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario's new Centre for Brain and Mind. "Understanding the higher functions of the central nervous system and how the brain gives rise to mental experience is one of the central challenges of science in the new millennium," says Goodale, who also holds a Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience.

The Centre for Brain and Mind-one of only a handful of such facilities in the world-combines state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment with a critical mass of expertise on the mind and brain. The combination is making Western an international powerhouse in the science of deciphering how the brain processes information and directs the body's functions.

Working in partnership with the Robarts Research Institute in London, Ontario, Goodale and his colleagues at the Centre are seeking answers to questions about how the brain enables us to see, speak, understand, process information, and send messages that result in actions. But cutting-edge research requires the right tools. With a contribution from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the research team is upgrading its functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment — an essential work tool.

Part of what makes the Centre unique is that it combines the use of neural imaging, work with neurological patients, cognitive studies of normal people and animal models-all using a broad spectrum of methods. Scientists working in a variety of disciplines-including psychology, neurology, artificial intelligence, computational theory, physiology-have come together to create a new interdisciplinary field of research called "cognitive neuroscience."

In the last decade, scientists have begun making what Goodale describes as "clear and measurable progress" in finding answers to the persistent mysteries of the brain. The results of their studies are becoming increasingly critical, as an aging population in Canada copes with larger numbers of patients with brain damage from progressive illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, and rarer forms of frontal lobe degeneration. "If we're going to be able to cope with an aging population that suffers from cognitive problems," says Goodale, "the more we understand the nature and the foundation of the cognitive dysfunction, the better able we are to treat it."


Neurological and mental disorders are devastating for the patients and families involved. They're also extremely costly for Canadian society.

Hospitalizations resulting from neurological disorders are estimated to cost $30 billion a year in direct health care costs and loss of productivity-far more than the costs associated with any other physical disorder, including heart disease and cancer. Mental health diseases and behavioural disorders represent the single largest category of ill-health affecting Canadians. For instance, 1 percent of all Canadians suffer from schizophrenia, a debilitating illness that forces many patients to end up in chronic care or psychiatric facilities.

The research being performed by scientists at the University of Western Ontario's Centre for Brain and Mind holds hope for many. Melvyn Goodale, professor of psychology at Western, hopes that by illuminating the root causes of these illnesses and disorders, the research can one day lead to the development of prevention and treatment strategies.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers at the Centre can compare the brains of healthy patients with those of patients suffering from mental illness or neurological disorders that disrupt the way their brains function. "We can see how their visual system works, how their memory works, how language operates-all kinds of things that were previously very difficult to study are becoming much more amenable to investigation," Goodale says.

The basic information gained through scans can also help to create robotic systems, a critical tool some researchers are using to try to assist patients with spinal cord damage.


The new Centre for Brain and Mind at the University of Western Ontario and the Robarts Research Institute in London, Ontario, are an integral part of Western's strategic research plan. A world-class imaging laboratory at the Robarts Research Institute hosts the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment that scientists from both institutions use to collaborate on their studies of the mind and brain. Though the equipment is at the Robarts Institute, both institutes are sharing academic and clinical resources to make the most of a critical mass of expertise centred in London. For instance, Ravi Menon at the Robarts Institute is working closely with Melvyn Goodale at Western to explore the relationship between the fMRI and visually guided human behaviour.

The University, which also helped to finance equipment and laboratory facilities at the Centre, is building an international reputation in the use of magnetic resonance imaging, says Nils Petersen, Vice-president of research at Western. "The university is a financing partner and we see this particular initiative as a high priority for the university, for the faculty of medicine and dentistry and also for the faculty of social sciences," Petersen says.

The unique interdisciplinary aspect of the research conducted at the Centre is enabling Western to recruit and retain the best and brightest graduate and post-graduate students and faculty in the field. The contribution from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, says Petersen, has allowed the researchers at the Centre to attract the resources and the expertise they need to lead the world in this kind of research.