Behind his keyboard, computer science professor Maxime Descoteaux has his mind absorbed by data and algorithms. A subject of interest to him, the brain, seems like a script that, in the end, contributes to concretely improving the lot of people with neurological diseases.
What do Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, concussions and chronic pain have in common? These are all neurological problems that are difficult to diagnose and treat.
“When a person injures a limb and has a hematoma or edema, the limb is treated with anti-inflammatory drugs, it is treated and strengthened in physical therapy, exercises are prescribed and then the person gets better”, illustrates the researcher. There is no such thing for the brain. And the consequences are heavy on the lives of sick people. For example, there are numerous people who suffer from chronic pain to seek medical assistance at the time of death…”
Information circulates in the brain through a meander of circuits and connections that stretches over 160,000 km, which makes neurological diseases complex to treat.
Since 2017, Professor Descoteaux has held the Chair of Research in Neuroinformatics, which brings together a multidisciplinary team working to map communication pathways in the brain. The basic research he directs gives rise to computational and mathematical tools that pave the way for potential medical solutions.
“For each of the health conditions we studied – multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, autism, concussions, sleep disorders, chronic pain, ADHD and COVID 19 – we tried to find the roads that deteriorated in the brain by comparing the imaging results of many patients. . This reveals some standards intelligent data signatures that serve as guides to better understand, prevent or cure these diseases. »
To succeed in this tour de force, access to hospitals’ health databases is essential, as is working closely with the medical profession.
Prevent and treat Alzheimer’s
With his team of researchers in computer science, physics, mathematics, imaging, neuroscience and medicine, Professor Descoteaux collaborates with teams from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and the CIUSSS de l’Estrie – CHUS. Several disciplines are involved: neurosciences, biomedical imaging, pain management and pharmacology.
“We have had great successes, among others with Alzheimer’s. I participated in a project with professor of medicine Stephen Cunnane and a postdoctoral researcher, who created a beverage that, in the form of a small drinking yogurt, is consumed in prevention to protect the brain against degeneration. Nestlé is currently marketing it in Europe and it will be available on our shelves soon. »
Thanks to the imaging technology developed by the researcher and his professorship, medicine will be able to contain diseases hitherto known as implacable.
“The imaging tools we are developing are also being used for the development of anti-inflammatory drugs of the future, which will be able to treat areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, three clinical studies are being conducted at Imeka, a company he created 10 years ago, without which the many medical applications being tested today would not have been possible so quickly.
Multiple sclerosis, another neurodegenerative disease, is also under the scrutiny of Professor Descoteaux through two studies carried out at the CHUS Research Center.
Better detect ADHD
Imagine a doctor being able to diagnose a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) based on the result of an MRI. Futuristic vision? Not for long.
“It is very difficult to correctly diagnose ADHD in children because there are so many subtleties,” explains Professor Descoteaux, based on a project he leads with pediatric research professor Larissa Takser. Diagnosis is based on questionnaires or clinical scores. Thanks to my technology, we could have objective criteria based on images that reproduce the brain wiring of affected children, tracing different profiles of ADHD. »
The decision support tools that will result from this work will allow clinicians to make more accurate diagnoses of ADHD.
Protecting the brain in case of COVID-19
The search for brain signatures also opens the door to solutions to address the consequences of COVID-19 on the brain.
“We worked with a cohort of patients in Brazil, where almost the entire population had the virus during the first wave. We noticed that even with a very mild COVID, inflammation persists in the brain. »
If left untreated, this inflammation can cause long-term damage. “A bit like an athlete who, without spraining his ankle, starts to wear out his tendon. If he is not treated, at some point he will get hurt. »
The study, which Professor Descoteaux hopes to see published soon, could lead to preventive treatments to reduce or treat this inflammation.
The prolific team behind the Research Chair in Neuroinformatics is far from over. With the aim of developing the next generation of neuroinformatics tools and serving the research on drugs, neurosciences and medicine of tomorrow, it will focus on developing the complex map that makes up the 160,000 km of connections, with a special emphasis on discovering new paths. .
And discoveries will continue to gobble up the miles, as the chair’s funding has just been renewed through 2024.
This chair receives funding from the Fondation de l’Université de Sherbrooke and the Fondation du CHUS. Progress is also the result of donor generosity and commitment.