Two researchers named Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research

U of A researchers Sue-Ann Mok and Trevor Steve received Brain Canada funding to support innovative projects targeting Alzheimer’s disease.

Adrianna MacPherson - 5 October 2021

Brain Canada has named two University of Alberta scientists as 2020 Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research. Sue-Ann Mok, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry, and Trevor Steve, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, have been awarded $100-thousand grants for their novel research into the detection and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Both researchers are members of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute, a multi-faculty, interdisciplinary teaching and research institute at the University of Alberta.  

Steve and Mok are among 20 early career investigators across Canada who are recipients of a $2-million investment Brain Canada has made over the past year in Canadian neuroscience research through its Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research Program. 

A new tool to measure the brain region most impacted by Alzheimer’s

Steve is studying the hippocampus, a region of the brain that shows the most severe changes in patients with Alzheimer’s. The hippocampus is unique in that it’s not one uniform region—there are both structural and functional differences between its front and back portions.

Currently, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can measure changes in the hippocampus. However, it can only effectively examine one portion of it, not the brain region in its entirety. Steve’s project will use brain samples to develop a new method by which changes throughout the hippocampus can be evaluated in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Measurements with this new technique will be analyzed to ensure they are accurately measuring the pathology of Alzheimer’s.

“Our project holds promise to develop a new biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease progression,” said Steve. “This research could potentially play a pivotal role in the discovery and validation of much-needed disease-modifying treatments for this debilitating condition.”

Harnessing naturally protective proteins to fight Alzheimer’s disease

Mok is investigating the abnormal clumping of proteins that happens in the brain cells of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. In order to perform their function in the cell, proteins need to maintain a certain shape. The clumping process impacts cell function and can eventually lead to cell death.  

Our cells have a natural defence system of proteins called chaperones, whose role it is to recognize incorrectly shaped or clumped proteins and help either clear them from the cell, or refold the defective proteins to restore their normal function. “However, it is clear that this protective system is failing somehow in Alzheimer’s disease because we see certain proteins, called tau, misfolding and forming aggregates,” said Mok.

Mok is studying a particular chaperone called DNAJA2, which is found in high levels in the damaged neurons of patients with Alzheimer’s and patients with a higher risk of developing the neurodegenerative disease. She identified that this chaperone helps prevent the clumping of tau proteins and hypothesizes that overproducing DNAJA2 could prevent tau clumps from causing widespread damage.

“Ultimately, we hope this helps us find methods to boost DNAJA2’s protective functions in cells and provides us with much-needed tools to help in our fight against Alzheimer’s,” said Mok.