UBC postdoc takes Harvard Medical School appointment to study sleep and Alzheimer’s disease

Dr. Brianne Kent in the lab at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health.

Pictured: Dr. Brianne Kent. Image credit: Paul Joseph/UBC.

As anyone who has ever lain awake in the dark hours after going to bed will attest, sleep is complicated and a lack of it can be disruptive to every aspect of one’s life. Deep sleep is important for a number of brain functions, and essential in clearing the brain of toxic proteins such as beta-amyloid, which can accumulate in the brain over the course of the day. Beta-amyloid proteins contribute to the plaques that form in the brain in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Brianne Kent has been conducting her postdoctoral research in Dr. Haakon Nygaard’s lab since 2015, studying sleep and the role of circadian rhythms—the body’s internal clock—and how those patterns change in Alzheimer’s disease. In early 2019, with generous career transition support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Kent will be taking on a new role with the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

“This is an incredible opportunity for Dr. Kent, as she has secured a highly coveted pre-faculty award from the NIH,” said Dr. Howard Feldman, who has mentored Dr. Kent throughout her postdoctoral fellowship at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health. “Her postdoctoral fellowship at UBC with us has been very successful, and we are very enthusiastic about this next phase in her career as she transitions to an independent research career.”

This opportunity represents an important step in establishing an independent research program. As a translational neuroscientist with a keen interest in the relationship between basic science discoveries and patient care, Dr. Kent honed her unique skill-set in collaboration with Dr. Nygaard and the clinical and research teams with the UBC Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders (UBCH CARD). The overarching goal of her research is to uncover early biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease in order to develop novel therapeutic interventions to slow disease progression.

“In the Nygaard lab, we’ve been able to identify a reduction in slow wave brain activity in transgenic mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Kent. “We’re looking to determine if there is a similar Alzheimer’s signature in the electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded in patients. To do this we have developed a wearable tool—essentially a portable EEG headband—in collaboration with Dr. Martin McKeown and Dr. Jason Valerio in the UBC Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre. The goal is to determine whether UBCH CARD patients experience a reduction in slow-wave sleep indicating reduced sleep quality and higher risk of cognitive impairment.”

Viideo: Dr. Brianne Kent presents on sleep disruption and Alzheimer's disease at the 2018 Alzheimer Update on May 26, 2018.

For Dr. Kent, who received a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research last year, this next phase of her postdoctoral training is an opportunity to pursue gold-standard certification in sleep and circadian rhythms research as she works toward a career as a translational scientist. 

“The K99/R00 award from the NIH will help me establish a research program as an independent scientist,” says Dr. Kent. “The award provides funding support to transition from the postdoctoral phase to establishing my own lab. It’s a unique program, and such funding doesn’t really exist in Canada, which is too bad—this period is a challenging one for an early career researcher, but Canada does not offer the dedicated research funding to support postdoctoral fellows as they try to transition to an Assistant Professorship.”

With the K99/R00 award from the NIH, Dr. Kent will receive five years of funding, including start-up funds, which will enable her to complete her training and establish her own lab, improving the odds of her recruitment to a tenure-track faculty position.

Despite her move, Dr. Kent will remain involved with ongoing research at UBC including MINT, a clinical trial in Alzheimer’s patients evaluating the benefits of a dietary supplement high in medium-chain triglycerides, such as those found in coconut oil.

 “Working with the Alzheimer’s clinic at DMCBH was my first opportunity to be involved in clinical research, and it’s informed how I’d like to see my career unfold,” says Dr. Kent. “Working with patients is the best way to understand the value and impacts of translational research, and I feel so fortunate to have had this unique immersive learning experience.”

Dr. Kent’s postdoctoral fellowship at DMCBH was also supported by a Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship (2015) and a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Trainee Award (2016). Her research at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School will be supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health (Award Number K99NS109909).