Early career scientists secure major federal grant to improve understanding of cognitive impairments in people with schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a complex mental disorder that affects about 1% of Canadians. Although this illness is frequently associated with hallucinations and delusions, people who have schizophrenia commonly face another important challenge: cognitive impairment. 

Dr. Lauri Tuominen and Dr. Synthia Guimond are early career scientists at The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research (IMHR) and the latest recipients of a Project grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Out of a total of 2130 submissions to this competition, 382 grants were funded, and only 82 were awarded to early career researchers, making it one of the most competitive funding competitions for health research in Canada.

Dr. Synthia Guimond and Dr. Lauri Tuominen
Dr. Synthia Guimond and Dr. Lauri Tuominen

The grant is worth more than $620,000 over five years. It will support research that will further our understanding of the brain’s memory system and, hopefully, lead to the development of new treatments for people with schizophrenia who experience cognitive issues. 

“Almost all individuals with schizophrenia experience cognitive difficulties,” says Guimond. “They have more difficulties paying attention and memorizing information, and we don’t fully understand why this is the case.”

Cognitive problems are present in many mental health disorders. The inability to remember, learn new things and problem solve has far reaching impacts.

“That's actually one of the reasons why people with schizophrenia are often unemployed, unable to get a job or finish their degrees,” says Tuominen. “Hallucinations or delusions can often be treated with current medication, or people can even learn to live with them, but it's very hard to function in society if your brain doesn't work as well as it should, if you can't remember or compute things properly.”

There’s currently no medication to help patients improve their cognitive functioning.

The team will look specifically at the cholinergic system of the brain, which is a key part of our memory system. 

“If the cholinergic system gets damaged, like in Alzheimer's disease, people experience difficulty remembering things,” says Tuominen.  

It has been proposed that dysfunctions in the cholinergic system underlie cognitive deficits in schizophrenia. This hypothesis however, has not yet been tested. 

The team will use positron emission tomography-magnetic resonance imaging (PET-MRI) at The Royal’s Brain Imaging Centre to measure the integrity of the cholinergic system and link it with memory performance that will be measured in the lab. This is the first CIHR funded research project that will harness the full potential of The Royal’s brain imaging center. 

 “The PET-MR scanner allows us to answer very unique questions,” says Guimond.

For this study, the team will be recruiting volunteers who have a diagnosis of schizophrenia as well people who don't have any diagnosis of mental health disorders. Their clinical symptoms will be tested, as well as their cognition. 

“We're going to look at how their brain works when they're doing a memory task and study the specific molecules that we're interested in in the brain, and we're going to be able to link these together,” explains Guimond.  

The researchers hope their findings will add one more piece to a very complex puzzle, one that will improve our understanding of the brain and its memory systems, especially as it pertains to severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

“I hope this study will help us understand the underlying biological mechanisms responsible for memory deficits in schizophrenia, so we can identify new drug targets and develop better treatments. This is the longer-term endeavour,” says Tuominen.

Tuominen and Guimond largely credit their team of co-applicants and collaborators at the IMHR (Dr. Clifford Cassidy, Dr. Alexandra Baines, Dr. David Attwood, and Katie Dinelle, MSc.) and at the Neuro Montreal Neurological Institute (Dr. Jean-Paul Soucy and Dr. Gassan Massarweh), as well as the IMHR’s internal peer review process, for the success of this grant.