Pictured: Dr. Shannon Kolind. Image credit: Paul Joseph/UBC.

In 2011, when Dr. Shannon Kolind was splitting her time as a postdoctoral fellow between Oxford University and King’s College London, a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR) trainee award helped her decide between staying in the United Kingdom where she’d continue her work in physics, or returning home to take on a more translational research program with the MRI Research Centre at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The award, which brought her back to UBC, set her on a path toward establishing a collaborative neurological research program linking the development and application of myelin- and axon-sensitive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques with clinical trials and, ultimately, more individualized patient care.

Dr. Kolind recently received a second MSFHR award, this time to fund her work in developing and applying unconventional neuroimaging methods for quantitative assessment of brain tissue health. The award will support her inquiry into the biological mechanism of MRI-visible changes in the brain in multiple sclerosis (MS).

“MRI is a valuable tool for observing changes in the brain, but there are limitations – conventional MRI is qualitative, which means that we can see that the brain is changing, but the biological underpinnings of those changes are unclear,” Dr. Kolind explains. “We’re essentially building an atlas. Once we understand how the brain changes in a given population, we can take that comprehensive imaging data and compare an individual’s scans, which will enable clinicians and caregivers to develop a more personalized treatment plan.”

Dr. Kolind’s research program aims to provide specific measures related to myelin loss or axonal damage. Myelin is a fatty substance that surrounds the nerve fibres (axons) of the brain and spinal cord to speed up nerve conduction. Myelin protects axons from inflammation; when myelin is damaged, electrical signal transmission between neurons is hindered and can cause cellular exhaustion and death, leading to a range of symptoms, including numbness or weakness, vision loss, tremors, dizziness and fatigue. Loss of myelin is most commonly associated with MS.

Myelin loss can be reversed, but damage to axons cannot.

“We’re at a point now where we are starting to apply some of our findings to clinical trials, and we’re able to work with clinicians like Dr. Rob Carruthers and Dr. Tony Traboulsee to contextualize quantitative brain imaging as it relates to MS and rarer variants such as neuromyelitis optica (NMO) and progressive solitary sclerosis.”

For Dr. Kolind, collaborations between her team of MRI physicists and clinicians like Drs. Carruthers and Traboulsee is wildly informative.

“Every case we’re presented with provides a richer perspective on what our tools can do,” says Dr. Kolind. “We may not have known to look for a particular variable without that collaboration – but by comparing clinical and imaging data, we’re composing a more complete profile of the brain in health and disease.”

Dr. Kolind’s research offers the potential to reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of clinical trials, and to provide clear markers of disease to inform research in a range of neurological areas, from MS to spinal cord injury to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

“This is an exciting time for MRI research at UBC,” says Dr. Kolind. “There’s been a lot of investment in this type of research, and with the new imaging facility set to open, we’re optimistic about the opportunities for collaboration both within the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and the wider UBC community; this new funding from MSFHR in particular is enabling us to develop our imaging tools to their full potential.”

The MSFHR Scholar Program supports early-career health researchers who are building leading-edge health research programs, training the next generation of scientists and expanding their potential to make significant contributions to their field. Named for Nobel prize recipient Dr. Michael Smith, MSFHR’s  core focus is talent development, giving researchers the support they need to advance their research and make the next big discovery.