John Wesley (Wes) Paylor, a PhD student in the Psychiatry Graduate Program, was honoured with the Dr. Roger C. Bland Memorial Award at the Department of Psychiatry’s 18th annual Research Day event.
The award, named in honour of the much-accomplished, widely-admired former Chair of the Department of Psychiatry, who died last July following a months-long battle with cancer, is the top research prize bestowed on the department’s graduate students.
The day-long symposium, which celebrates and showcases the research of the Department of Psychiatry’s Residents and Graduate students, took place May 15th at Bernard Snell Hall in University of Alberta Hospital.
“We had a lot of posters this year from different departments – about 35 in all. That’s a big jump from last year, when we only had about 16 posters. We also had 15 students presenting in the three-minute thesis talks,” said student organizer Daniela Gomez, whose Master’s research is focused on neurocognitive changes in HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) patients.
Paylor, whose research focuses on the Neurobiology of Schizophrenia and how neural plasticity might play a role in the disorder, joined the Winship Lab in the department’s Neurochemical Research Unit (NRU) in 2016. He previously completed his Master’s degree in the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute at the University of Alberta.
“Dr. Roger Bland was a wonderful mentor and colleague for many of us in the mental health area and an internationally recognized Psychiatric Epidemiologist and Professor in the department,” said NRU co-founder and Professor Emeritus Dr. Glen Baker, who presented the award to Paylor.
“The award is offered annually to a graduate student in Psychiatry who has demonstrated excellence in psychiatric research. The award has special significance this year since Dr. Bland passed away last year, and this is the first time it’s been presented since then,” he said.
Paylor’s three-minute thesis talk was titled: Imaging cellular plasticity after perineuronal net loss in animal models of Schizophrenia.
“The main focus of the Winship Lab in general is looking at Neuroplasticity, which is the capacity of the brain to change in structure and function as a result of our experiences or insults,” Paylor told attendees.
“Typically, we think of plasticity as a really positive thing, where we’re learning a new skill or we’re learning guitar, or where you can have an injury you want to recover from. Changes in plasticity can serve in a really beneficial capacity. But that’s certainly not always the case and in some diseases like Schizophrenia it’s suspected that plasticity can play a maladaptive role.”
By studying brain structures called perineuronal nets in a common animal model of the disease, Paylor’s research focuses on the role these structures may play in restricting neural plasticity.
Dr. Esther Fujiwara, Graduate Program Director, presented several other awards at the event, including:
Best three-minute thesis award: to Master’s student Reham Shalaby (runner up: John Wesley Paylor);
The Glen Baker Award, for best poster of a graduate student in Psychiatry: to Master’s student Matthew Reeson (runner-up: PhD student Jeff Sawalha);
Best poster for a Resident in Psychiatry: Dr. Shaina Archer (runner-up: Dr. Vincent Lee)
Best guest poster: Jiyeon Seo, Honour’s student in Neuroscience (runner-up: Amanda Lussoso, BSc student in Psychology).
Renowned depression researcher Dr. Raymond Lam, Professor and B.C. Leadership Chair in Depression Research in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, was the keynote speaker at this year’s Research Day event.
His address, which focused on cognition as a key clinical dimension of depression, was titled Cognitive Dysfunction in Depression: Focus on Work Functioning.
“There are huge costs associated with clinical depression and in every country the costs of lost productivity are much greater than the cost of work absence. So that’s why it’s important to look at optimizing work functioning as we’re treating people for depression and trying to improve on that lost productivity,” said Dr. Lam, Associate Head for Research and International Affairs in UBC’s Department of Psychiatry.
Dr. Lam also serves as Director of the Mood Disorders Centre Research, Education, Awareness and Care Hub (MDCreach) at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health in Vancouver.
Since research shows there are differences in the brain structure of individuals who struggle with both depression and cognition – versus depression alone – new drugs are being developed to specifically target cognitive issues and depression.
One such medication is Vortioxetine, an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) with additional effects on serotonin receptors. Studies show it has helped some patients struggling with depression to improve their cognitive functioning, he said.
“We looked at three groups in our study: all patients, employed patients, and a subgroup of professionals only. Then we looked at the impact of Vortioxetine versus placebo in each of these groups,” he said.
All three groups showed some benefit from Vortioxetine versus placebo. Employed patients – especially professionals – showed the greatest benefits.
“The people who were working seemed to have more cognitive benefit from Vortioxetine than all the patients together and the professional group had even more. So it seems like there is something different about the Vortioxetine and there’s something different about the working patients and the professionals in terms of improvement,” he said.
“Sitting around and watching TV while you’re getting an antidepressant may not show the same benefit – both in terms of cognition and improvement of symptoms – as if you had to go to work and keep using your brain and using a treatment that helps your brain. Maybe that generates a synergistic effect,” he added.
“So when we’re treating people with depression, don’t automatically tell them to take time off work. Try to keep them at work, because once you come off work it’s much harder to get started back to work.”
Other featured guest speakers on Research Day included Dr. Katherine Aitchison, a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, whose morning address was titled Pharmacogenomics and Therapeutics in Psychiatry: An Overview and Update; and Assistant Professor Dr. Bo Cao, whose afternoon talk was titled Machine Learning in Psychiatry: An Introduction and Applications.
Dr. Cao joined the department from Boston University in 2018 after earning a PhD in Computational Neuroscience. His key research focus is applying machine learning and statistical analysis in the study of the brain using the genetic, cognitive, behavioural and MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) data of patients with psychiatric disorders.
“We still rely on symptoms in psychiatry but we still don’t have reliable biomarkers to make diagnoses,” he said.
Since some symptoms are common to various diseases, and since a wide variety of symptoms may be associated with a specific disease, this poses major diagnostic challenges for clinicians.
“That is why we need evidence-based diagnosis and reliable biomarkers,” he explained, “and then eventually we may see what we call personalized medicine in mental health.”