Vanier scholar Alex McGirr bridges basic science and mood disorders care

Alexander (Alex) McGirr

Alex McGirr’s work examines patients with mood disorders and animal models of depression in order to improve patient interventions. As he settles into his lab and clinical roles at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, he looks forward to building a career in translational medicine with mood disorders in mind. McGirr, who was recently awarded a Vanier Scholarship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, has a little more than a year left in his clinical residency in Psychiatry; he is also in the process of completing his PhD in Neuroscience.

“My main goal is to improve the quality of life of patients with mood disorders,” says McGirr. “In particular, I would like to work towards understanding and addressing the residual symptoms that many patients experience after successful treatment of their depressive or manic episodes. Whether it’s the cognitive, motivational, or sleep difficulties that patients continue to experience after clinical remission, it is clear that our current treatments can be improved on.”

Working under the guidance of Dr. Tim Murphy, with support from Dr. Lakshmi Yatham, Dr. Raymond Lam and the Mood Disorders Centre, McGirr is working to position himself to be able to ask (and answer) research questions in the clinic.

“Working with patients gives research a lot of context,” McGirr says. “I envision my research career as being heavily informed by my clinical work as it will guide my questions.”

“As a psychiatrist embracing basic research, Alex McGirr will have the opportunity to leverage our understanding of brain circuitry to develop circuit-based treatments for depression,” says Dr. Tim Murphy. “He is patient-centered, and he appreciates mental health needs and challenges in a Canadian context.”

“McGirr demonstrates the important blend of scientific creativity, tenacity and rigor that characterizes a highly successful graduate student,” says Dr. Raymond Lam. “He is clearly on a fast-track to an academic career as a clinician-scientist.”

Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships are given to doctoral students who demonstrate a high degree of academic excellence, research promise, and leadership potential. With the funding the scholarship provides, McGirr hopes to use animal models and cortical imaging to understand how different etiological pathways to depression result in both common and unique brain circuit changes. Then, by using conventional antidepressant treatments, characterize residual circuitry abnormalities to better understand the basis for residual symptoms.

“Alex is an incredibly bright and hardworking young researcher, and I have no doubt that he will be a national and international leader in the field of mood disorders,” says Dr. Lakshmi Yatham. “He will make many important contributions to the field.”

With such a collaborative approach to his work, McGirr looks forward to increasing his involvement in the neuroscience community over the coming year.

“I always envisioned building a career that balances clinical care and research – I want to be the person driving the implementation of novel ideas in the clinic,” McGirr says. “It’s been a long road, but that was always the goal!”   

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