New junior research chair bridges the gap between research and care

Dr. Gayatri Saraf, a clinician-researcher at The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) and new junior research chair, is excited to be collaborating with teams from The Royal and uOttawa on research projects relating to bipolar disorder (BD), specifically depression associated with bipolar disorder over the next year. 

Dr. Gayatri Saraf, a clinician-researcher at The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) and new junior research chair.
Dr. Gayatri Saraf, a clinician-researcher at The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) and new junior research chair.

The junior research chair is a partnership between TOH, the uOttawa Department of Psychiatry, and The University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research (IMHR) at The Royal. Junior research chair is a prestigious position typically awarded to early-career researchers who have demonstrated significant promise in their area of study. This year it was awarded for the first time by this group of partners. 

For Saraf, research and care are mutually beneficial. As an active clinician, Saraf provides evidence-based care to individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The questions they have – and the issues they face – shape her research questions. In turn, she hopes that her research will contribute to their improved well-being and quality of life.

For Saraf, the position of research chair is a meaningful boost at the right time. There is much more research to be done on BD.  

"It's a whole new field – there's so much to do that hasn't been done and we're just beginning to explore newer treatments," says Saraf. 

Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic-depressive illness, is a mental health condition characterized by severe mood swings that cycle between periods of intense "highs" (mania or hypomania) and periods of intense "downs" (depression).

According to the Canadian Psychological Association, 2.2 per cent of Canadians will experience BD at some point in their lifetime. The condition usually emerges in late adolescence or early adulthood but can also begin in childhood. 

"Some people with bipolar disorder end up doing well, but many don't – and there's a risk of rehospitalization and suicide," reflects Saraf. "It just causes so much suffering, and not just to them but to their friends and family as well." 

One of the persistent challenges as it pertains to mental health treatment is that medications work for some people with a given condition, but not all people with that same condition. For some, medications do not work at all and it's not clearly understood why this is. 

Saraf, who has previously studied the role of brain inflammation in bipolar disorder, is excited about tapping into the resources of The Royal's Brain Imaging Centre and is grateful for the opportunity to collaborate. One of the questions she's trying to answer with researchers from The Royal is in regards to the density of neurons in the brain and whether this density has an impact on the severity of bipolar disorder. The team is looking for evidence that shows whether effective treatments are effective because they increase density, knowledge that could potentially open up new areas for treatment.   

"We are using PET-MRI to look at changes in the brain. It is amazing because it will tell us mechanistically how those treatments work – we don't know yet exactly how they work," says Saraf.

Saraf is also exploring alternative therapies, which are an important aspect of mental health care because they can complement conventional treatments such as medication and psychotherapy and address the needs of diverse populations.

One area of interest, for example, is the impact of diet and nutrition on BD. Saraf, who is a recent recipient of a grant from the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute, is set to explore the impact of time-restricted eating, a form of intermittent fasting, on bipolar depression in the coming months. 

Saraf is hopeful about what lies ahead: "It's a really great and exciting time to be a researcher in mental health."

She points out that mental health research traditionally hasn't been funded to the same levels as other illnesses but that recent innovations are starting to level the playing field. 

"As newer technologies emerge, newer methods in brain imaging tools, we're beginning to explore and uncover what's actually underneath – which wasn't possible before."