The Brain Trust

The Brain Trust To say that it is an exciting time to be a neuroscientist in Ontario would be an understatement of immense proportion. By Michael Salter A revolution in biological sciences has swept through our province like a wildfire, transforming the scientific landscape and bringing forth a dynamic and vibrant community of neuroscience innovators. For the past 20 years or so since I first established my laboratory

Michael Salter
Jan 13, 2010

The Brain Trust

To say that it is an exciting time to be a neuroscientist in Ontario would be an understatement of immense proportion.


A revolution in biological sciences has swept through our province like a wildfire, transforming the scientific landscape and bringing forth a dynamic and vibrant community of neuroscience innovators.

For the past 20 years or so since I first established my laboratory at the Hospital for Sick Children, or “SickKids” as we now know it, I have been privileged to witness, and in some measure to be a part of, a host of discoveries that have shaped—and are continuing to shape—the way we view the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Here’s just a sampling of some of the major breakthroughs of Ontario neuroscientists:

  • Identifying a diversity of genes critical for nervous system function including dopamine receptors, axon guidance molecules, presenilins, and the so-called Downstream...

A revolution in biological sciences has swept through our province like a wildfire, transforming the scientific landscape and bringing forth a dynamic and vibrant community of neuroscience innovators.

For the past 20 years or so since I first established my laboratory at the Hospital for Sick Children, or “SickKids” as we now know it, I have been privileged to witness, and in some measure to be a part of, a host of discoveries that have shaped—and are continuing to shape—the way we view the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Here’s just a sampling of some of the major breakthroughs of Ontario neuroscientists:

  • Identifying a diversity of genes critical for nervous system function including dopamine receptors, axon guidance molecules, presenilins, and the so-called Downstream Regulatory Element Antagonistic Modulator (DREAM);
  • Characterizing fundamental molecular processes that regulate the formation and function of synapses;
  • Discovering a spectrum of disease-producing or disease-modifying genes for autism, ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia;
  • Finding neural stem cells in the skin and cancer stem cells in brain tumors;
  • Elucidating brain neural networks that underlie the most profound aspects of human cognition, memory and pain; and
  • Developing new treatments for neurodegenerative disorders, stroke, and cognitive dysfunction.

Such a diversity of significant research accomplishments has positioned Ontario in a leadership position in many areas of the global neuroscience arena.

These advances are in large part due to the technologies that have revolutionized the way we do science, such as: the fMRI and other imaging infrastructure, genome-wide sequencing, and new technologies in cellular and protein analysis. Methods are now available to identify, track and modulate the activity of single nerve cells within the brain, which is useful for studying healthy brain function as well as disease states.

Amid all this leading science, a growing scientific entrepreneurship in neuroscience has emerged. Let me share with you, briefly, the story of one endeavor with which I am most familiar. I am a co-founder of a startup company called NoNO Inc. which we established on the basis of a molecule the founders of NoNO designed and developed to reduce neuronal cell death due to ischemic stroke, based on findings as reported in Science in 1999 and 2002.

Amid all this leading science, a growing scientific entrepreneurship in neuroscience has emerged.

Specifically, the peptide competes for the interaction between the scaffolding protein PSD-95 and the NMDA receptor, and by doing this prevents the activation of nitric oxide synthetase and the production of NO — hence no NO or “NoNO”. Over the last 5 years, NoNO Inc. has focused primarily on developing this specific technology and as a result now have a drug that is part way through a phase 2 clinical trial as a treatment for stroke. What makes this truly exciting is that this has happened in Ontario—the key discoveries, investors, funding, and scientists are all from here.

The climate for doing leading neuroscience is electric in the Province. The scientific community, the public, and the government are all inspired to achieve even greater heights in neuroscience research and its application. A growing focus is on translating brain research discoveries to commercialized products aimed at preventing, diagnosing, and treating brain diseases. One example is the Ontario Brain Institute, a bold concept which promises to inject substantial resources into fundamental research and commercialization in neuroscience.

So what is the future of neuroscience in our Province? There are visionary leaders in neuroscience here in Ontario, as well as an adventurous and collegial spirit that our country prides itself on. We are accelerating along a breathtaking trajectory of neuroscience discovery, increasingly creating new understandings of the most fundamental processes by which the brain works, and applying our discoveries to the plethora of brain disorders which ravage individuals around the globe. It promises to be a fast-paced adventure as we look to own the podium of neuroscience.

Michael Salter is Head of the Program in Neurosciences & Mental Health at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.