If there were a prize for the most upbeat member of the House of Commons, Anthony Housefather would most surely be on the shortlist. But the MP for Mount Royal could not conceal his pain when he spoke of the dementia that is slowly robbing him of his relationship with his beloved father.
Housefather represented Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor in announcing major new funding for research into Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) in Montreal on Jan. 23.
Ottawa is giving a total of $2.5 million to advance our understanding of dementia and contribute to the search for new treatments. The money will be funnelled through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), a federal agency.
David Housefather suffered what seemed like a minor stroke two years ago at age 83, but his condition has since deteriorated. “Some days, he does not remember whether I am his son or his cousin, yet he can still use complex language and do complicated math. This is a tremendous burden on my mother’s shoulders,” said Housefather, who added that his family does not have a history of dementia.
The new funding includes $1 million to establish the first Canadian brain bank network, which will be linked to the international Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI).
The Canadian network will provide the personnel and physical infrastructure needed to contribute to the ADNI program and co-ordinate brain donation and tissue banking for dementia research programs in Canada.
The remaining $1.5 million will be divided among three collaborative projects involving Canadian and European researchers that also receive funding from the European Union’s Joint Program on Neurodegenerative Diseases.
More than 400,000 Canadians live with dementia, with Alzheimer’s accounting for approximately 70 per cent of the cases, said Yves Joanette, scientific director of the CIHR’s Montreal-based Institute of Aging, who is the lead person on the government’s Dementia Research Strategy, which was launched last year to build on the scientific work that’s being done throughout the country.
Not only does an effective treatment or means of preventing dementia remain elusive, but the cause of degenerative brain disease is largely unknown, he said, and only more research will lead to clinical advancements.
A supply of brains donated by people who suffered from dementia is invaluable in investigating the origins and progression of these diseases, he added, as little can be determined while patients are still alive.
Some days, he does not remember whether I am his son or his cousin.
– Anthony Housefather
The recipients of the funding include researchers at the JGH, McGill University and Quebec’s Institut national de la recherché scientifique, as well as the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa.
The JGH’s Lady Davis Institute (LDI) is the headquarters of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, which is conducting the largest ever Canadian study of dementia, in the hopes of finding ways to detect it earlier, under the direction of neurologist Dr. Howard Chertkow.
Chertkow is renowned for his study of memory loss and the development of early markers of cognitive impairment. He was one of three developers of the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, which U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly aced during his medical examination last month. The test is used around the world.
Dr. Hyman Schipper, LDI’s senior investigator, has done pioneering research on the role of the enzyme HO-1 in age-related dementia. His goal is to develop medication that could inhibit that enzyme’s apparent ability to trap iron in the mitochondria, which is toxic to the brain, he said.
“McGill and the JGH are world leaders in brain research and the treatment of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases,” said Housefather. “I congratulate the researchers receiving funding in Montreal and across the country, and wish them every success in their work.”
At McGill, biochemistry professor Nahum Sonenberg will be supported in his study of the mechanisms at the molecular level that are responsible for altering the manufacture of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. He is collaborating with his colleagues in Europe and Israel.