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Brain research advances Ontario’s leadership in neurosciences

Two research projects led by University of Windsor professors have the potential to transform how emergency patients with traumatic brain injuries are diagnosed and will improve cognition in children, attendees heard during a media event Thursday at the University.

  • Elena Maeva, an associate professor in physics cross-appointed with chemistry and biochemistry, is leading a project with industry partner Tessonics Inc. to develop a mobile device to diagnose head injuries on the site of accidents.
  • Dragana Martinovic, associate professor in education, along with her research team and industry partner OTEP Inc., are leading a project that uses the power of video games to identify and improve cognition in children aged six through 12.

These advances come via an innovative partnership between the Ontario Brain Institute and the University of Windsor. The two projects are supported by a broader investment of $11 million by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) to the institute.

“Our government is pleased to see these two neurotechnology projects begin to take shape here in Windsor,” Essex MP Jeff Watson said on behalf of the Honorable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for FedDev Ontario. “The partnerships will not only help create high-quality jobs in the region, but they will also support the discovery of new solutions for the diagnosis and treatment of brain-related injury and disease.”

UWindsor President Alan Wildeman says fostering strong partnerships between academia and industry is the key to making the most efficient use of university research.

“Researchers at the University of Windsor are engaged in many projects addressing issues of importance to society,” he says. “The work of the neurotechnology cluster is going to enhance diagnosis of brain injuries and provide new insights into cognitive development, and the University of Windsor is grateful for the support of FedDev Ontario, the Ontario Brain Institute, Tessonics and OTEP Inc.”

Diagnosing brain injuries in the field

Dr. Maeva’s project has the potential to improve the diagnostics of patients with traumatic brain injuries in field emergency cases. Every year, about 1.5 million people in Canada and the U.S. sustain a traumatic brain injury. To properly diagnose brain injuries, the patient must undergo either a CAT scan or an MRI scan in a hospital setting.

The mobile Ultrasonic Transcranial Imaging (UTI) device developed by Maeva’s team enables emergency crews to quickly diagnose the patient’s head injury at the site of an accident, which saves precious minutes. Using the portable device, health care professionals can quickly detect structural brain damage around the wounded site, the identification of blood vessel pathologies, such as an aneurism.

The device can also detect the presence of foreign objects trapped in the brain; determining their size, location and depth. A total of 10 full-time highly-skilled jobs are expected to be created from this project alone.

“The UTI has the potential to revolutionize treatment for traumatic brain injury and will bring considerable benefits to patients, healthcare providers and the healthcare sector as a whole,” Maeva says. “Through the support of FedDev Ontario and industry partner Tessonics Inc., we see a much brighter future for patients who require immediate, emergency assessment.”

Using video games to enhance children’s cognitive development

Dr. Martinovic says research has shown that video games can serve as powerful tools in reshaping and enhancing visual-motor, spatial, visual and verbal skills. Furthermore, it can improve the ability to self-regulate, make appropriate decisions and problem-solve.

Based on an understanding of how the brain develops in children and the impact of computer technologies, her team of researchers will design a software engine that will allow health professionals and parents to use the data from online computer games to identify cognitive strengths and weaknesses in children much earlier than is currently possible. A total of 15 full-time, highly-skilled jobs are expected to be created from this initiative.

“This truly interdisciplinary partnership between the University and industry is driven by the passion to better understand how computer games can be utilized in children’s cognitive development,” Martinovic says. “This exemplary collaboration among the UWindsor research team and industry partner Rob Whent at OTEP Inc. would only be possible through FedDev Ontario funding.”

In total, the investment by FedDev Ontario through its Technology Development Program to the Ontario Brain Institute will support 13 projects, including the two projects based at the University of Windsor, that have brought academic institutions and private sector organizations, including four international companies. This collaboration aims to accelerate the growth of Ontario’s neuroscience sector and contribute towards the development of southern Ontario’s growing neurotechnology cluster.