Annemarie Wolff is one of the newest recipients of the Governor General's Academic Gold Medal for her PhD thesis work. Wolff is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Mental Health Research (IMHR) and a former PhD student at the IMHR and Faculty of Medicine (Neuroscience) at the University of Ottawa.
The gold medal is awarded to the student who achieves the highest academic standing at the graduate level.
The award was in recognition of Wolff’s PhD work. Her research investigated relevant neural markers of individual differences in healthy brains using electroencephalography (EEG), a non-invasive method of recording electrical activity of the brain.
Understanding certain differences in brain activity – instead of only looking at averages in a given population – might have a significant role to play in personalized medicine.
Personalized medicine is defined as tailoring medical treatment to the individual characteristics of each patient.
Wolff explains that when we only look at averages, we lose the variation between people. “And when you’re just looking at the average, that doesn’t really describe any individual within the population accurately or well, or in a useful way.”
Matching the right prescription to the right person can be a challenge – some people simply don’t respond to the medication they’re prescribed. Medications also take a long time to work. For example, it could take six weeks before the medication is deemed to be effective or not. And if it doesn’t work it means starting over, another six weeks with a different medication and possibly a whole new suite of side effects like nausea, weight gain, or seizures.
“For things like psychiatric illness, the question is maybe if we look at some of these measures and we account for them, then maybe we can get a better understanding why, if you have two people with depression and the same symptoms, why does a medication work for one person but not the other?”
“Why do people have different side effects? Why don’t people respond to the same medication when they have the same symptoms?” asks Wolff. “These are important questions nobody has the answer to.”
Wolff’s interest in the sciences began in elementary school. She enjoyed the physical, hands on side of science. In high school, a co-op placement at The Ottawa Hospital’s cancer research centre inspired her to pursue science at the University of Toronto.
“Why do people have different side effects? Why don’t people respond to the same medication when they have the same symptoms?” asks Annemarie Wolff, winner of the Governor General's Academic Gold Medal. “These are important questions nobody has the answer to.”
“I discovered neuroscience and I loved it,” says Wolff.
Wolff is currently working on a postdoctoral fellowship and using her PhD work to look at similar measures in psychiatric patients. So far, she has learned that the difference in some of these measures is smaller in people who have schizophrenia. “Their brain activity changes a lot less than it does in healthy people,” she explains. “This makes sense and is consistent with symptoms, because people with schizophrenia often say the colours aren’t as bright and they feel more disconnected from the environment and from the world, so the question is, why is this going on?”