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Event delves into mysteries of neuronal networks and brain diseases

Photo courtesy of Mélanie Provencher.

The brain is thought to have more than 100 trillion connections between neurons. A new conference at the University of Ottawa encourages people to take a closer look.

The University of Ottawa’s Brain and Mind Research Institute (uOMBRI) is the host of the inaugural Brain Health Awareness Week, Sept. 22–27, to raise awareness about the institute’s work on the most complex organ in the human body.

The institute is internationally recognized for  its research into genetics, neural dynamics, regenerative medicine, as well as numerous brain disorders.

David Park is the director of the institute, co-director of the Parkinson Research Consortium at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, and a professor at the U of O.

He explained that in addition to research, the institute wants to improve patient access to mental health care.

“I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for people to gather and share ideas and share experiences about the brain and brain diseases,” said U of O student Kevin Lee. “I think a lot of people can speak to their own experiences with brain health.”

Lee is a PhD student studying the basic mechanics of neuro-circuit formation. For the last few years, his project has focused on “how the brain creates the connections under normal conditions, so we can better understand what might actually go wrong in situations when we have neurological diseases.”

Among the speakers are Elizabeth Manley, a Canadian former Olympic figure skater; Stéphane Richer, former defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens; and Shelley McKay, a former cyclist and tri-athlete on the Canadian national team—all of whom came to discuss their personal struggles with mental illness. Mayor Jim Watson was slated to attend the official proclamation of Brain Health Awareness Week on Sept. 24.

Mayor Watson said in a statement that the city of Ottawa supports the institute and “its mandate to link research discoveries to health care delivery for immediate impact on the quality of life for patients and their caregivers in our city.”

“Awareness of (this) is critically important,” said Mayor Watson.

The conference also includes a debate on the prescription of antidepressants and several lectures delving into the complexity of the brain.

Park stressed the importance of awareness campaigns. “Patients are their own best advocates, so they need to be informed, they need to be involved, and they need to be aware of what’s going on in their own health,” he said.

Mental health issues are becoming more and more prevalent at universities. In 2011, it was found that antidepressants were the second-most claimed prescription at the U of O, after contraceptives. Those numbers align with the general trend across the country.

Students need a way to access resources that can alleviate “incredible amounts of pressure, stress, and anxiety,” said Park.

In August, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations released a report calling on the federal government to provide more support services for young adults with mental health issues.