Neurochemical Research Unit

Our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are regulated the complex chemistry of the human brain. However, far from being a stand-alone regulator of brain function, this neurochemistry is modulated by our genetic background, the world we live in, and our physical and emotional health. Changes in our environment can drastically alter the chemistry in our body and brain, affecting our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions, and thereby influencing our mental health. Similarly, our genetic background regulates the development and function of our nervous system, our risk of mental illness, and our response to the medications used to treat brain disorders. Moreover, complex interactions between our environment and our genetics across all stages of life (from before birth to old age) can influence our mental health and increase the risk of mental illness in our children. In the Neurochemical Research Unit, we are interested in all aspects of the complex interplay between brain chemistry, environment, genetics, and brain health. Our scientists perform studies across all pillars of research, from reductionist isolated cell culture preparations to clinical trials in human patients, in order to define the fundamental neurobiology that underlies the function of the healthy brain or its dysfunction in mental illness. From these insights, we develop and validate novel therapies to reduce the burden of brain disorders in humans.

Highlights of recent research by scientists in the NRU include:

  • Studies on the etiology and potential novel pharmacotherapy of schizophrenia and major depressive disorder (Serdar Dursun, Glen Baker, Marnie MacKayJaime Hallak)
  • Research to identify genetic and biochemical factors, i.e. biomarkers, associated with risk to mental illness and addictions and with response to treatments in order to facilitate personalized medicine (Katherine Aitchison)
  • Development and validation of school-based interventions to reduce youth depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation (Peter Silverstone)
  • Investigations of the role of specialized components in the extracellular matrix that surrounds neurons in the brain and spinal cord in the pathophysiology and treatment of psychiatric and neurological disorders (Ian Winship)
  • Research into the cognitive implications of brain pathology in patients with multiple sclerosis or human immunodeficiency virus (Esther Fujiwara)
  • Neuroimaging studies to map altered patterns of brain activity associated with impulse control in adolescents at risk of mental illness or behavioural difficulties (Andy Greenshaw, Serdar Dursun)
  • Investigation of the interaction between adverse childhood experiences, recent adverse life events, genetic vulnerability and exposure to cannabis in individuals with psychotic illnesses (Katherine Aitchison)
  • Research elucidating an essential role for remyelination in the therapeutic efficacy of antipsychotic medications, and the potential utility of these medications in demyelinating disorders (Xin-Min Li)
  • Studies of the relationship between cellular stressors, their impact on the function of the immune cells of the brain, and the consequences for brain function (Kathryn Todd)
  • Studies using high field MRI to define structural abnormalities in the fronto-limbic structures of the brain in patients with major depressive disorder (Nick Coupland)
  •  Investigations on neuroactive steroids and amino acids as biomarkers in multiple sclerosis (Glen Baker, Chris Power, Bradley Kerr).

NRU Facilities and Infrastructure

Researchers in the NRU have access to world class research facilities in the Clinical Sciences Building (CSB, W.G. Dewhurst Laboratories), Katz Building, and Research Transition Facility on the North University of Alberta Campus. Infrastructure for analytical neurochemistry, in vivo imaging in animal models, behavioural testing in rodents, primary cell culture, and quantitative and qualitative immunoassays and histology are found in the Dewhurst Laboratories. Beyond the CSB, NRU investigators have access to cutting edge research-dedicated human imaging infrastructure in the Peter S. Allen MR Research Centre, as well as core infrastructure in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry.