Investing in the advancement of health research

- August 5, 2021

CIHR's Project Grant program is designed to capture ideas with the greatest potential to advance health-related fundamental or applied knowledge, health research, health care, health systems, and/or health outcomes.
CIHR's Project Grant program is designed to capture ideas with the greatest potential to advance health-related fundamental or applied knowledge, health research, health care, health systems, and/or health outcomes.

Researchers affiliated with Dalhousie, the IWK Health Centre, and Nova Scotia Health have received funding from the federal government through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Project Grant program.

The Project Grant program is designed to capture ideas with the greatest potential to advance health-related fundamental or applied knowledge, health research, health care, health systems, and/or health outcomes. It supports research projects proposed and conducted by individual researchers or groups of researchers in all areas of health.

“Congratulations to the recipients of Project Grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research,” says Alice Aiken, Dal’s vice president research and innovation. “The innovative work you are doing will provide timely and relevant results that can be applied right here in Nova Scotia, throughout the country, and around the globe.”

“We are extremely proud of the important and innovative work of our researchers,” says Dr. David Anderson, dean in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine. “The success of our faculty members to secure funding that will contribute to improved health outcomes for Canadians demonstrates the significant impact their scientific and innovative thinking is having on their respective fields, and the high calibre of researchers that the Faculty of Medicine and Dalhousie University are able to attract and retain.”

“We are so fortunate to have so many outstanding researchers in the Department of Psychiatry,” says Dr. Jason Morrison, interim head in the Department of Psychiatry. “This recent CIHR success is a testament to the perseverance we have seen from our faculty members over the last 18 months. Seeing their success after facing so many obstacles makes me extremely proud.”

Meet the researchers affiliated with Dal, Nova Scotia Health and the IWK:

Personality-Targeted interventions for addressing polysubstance use among opioid-addicted clients undergoing opioid substitution therapy — a feasibility study

Principal investigators:
Sherry Stewart; Patricia Conrod; Sara Davidson

Co-investigators: Sean Barrett; Suzanne Brissette; Caroline Brunelle; Penny Corkum; Loan Mahu; Janine Olthuis; Duncan Webster

“We are amid a severe opioid crisis, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Stewart. “In Canada, prescription opioid use and opioid overdoses/mortality were soaring pre-pandemic, reaching epidemic levels, with opioid-related deaths only increasing since the pandemic. Powerful and dangerous synthetic opioids are increasingly being used to cut street drugs due to disruptions to the drug supply chain with pandemic border closures. More effective interventions for addressing opioid use disorder are sorely needed.”

An effective mainstay treatment for opioid use disorder in Canada is opioid substitution therapy (OST). However, clients frequently have other problems that are not well served by OST alone such as high OST drop-out and continued polysubstance use during OST.

"There is need to develop, evaluate, and engage opioid substitution therapy (OST) clinics in using psychosocial treatments that curb risky polysubstance use and improve OST retention, to ultimately reduce opioid-related morbidity and mortality in people with opioid use disorder and improve health services for this vulnerable group,” continues Dr. Stewart.

The researchers involved in this project have recently shown that personality traits that predict risk for mental health/behavioural problems also predict risky forms and routes of substance use in OST clients. They will use their expertise in brief cognitive-behavioral interventions and clinical research methods to test the feasibility of personality-targeted substance use interventions in OST clients. They will examine feasibility from the perspectives of clients, therapists, and clinic directors to see if the personality targeted approach should be pursued further in this population.

Project: Circadian clock regulatory mechanisms and the etiology of behavioral disorders

Principal Investigator: Deniz Top

Approximately one in three Canadians experience a mental illness such as depression in their lifetime, costing Canadian society $51 billion every year.

“Current drugs are not always effective and can have unwanted side effects. In order to develop better treatments with fewer side effects, there needs to be an understanding of how mental illnesses happen,” says Dr. Top.

Some people with mental illnesses have mutations in genes controlling sleep-wake cycles. Dr. Top and his research team have discovered how these mutations may cause mental illness. They have found that mutations in some sleep-wake cycle genes disrupt some parts of the brain, but not other parts.

“This causes different parts of the brain to cycle at different rates, disrupting the whole brain. We believe that this may be one way in which mental illnesses develop,” he explains.

Dr. Top will study this problem three ways. 1) Learn how gene mutations change the function of the gene and how proteins in brain cells act on the gene. 2) Examine how these mutations affect the function of different brain cells. 3) Use what has been learned to understand why so many mutations in genes connected with mental illnesses cause changes in behaviours, like sleep, fighting, eating and memory. They will also artificially change different parts of the brain to see if they can cause the same change in behaviours as the mutations. This will help gain a complete picture of how mutations in circadian genes cause mental illness.

Project: An AI-based mobile sensing approach to optimize clinical monitoring of anxiety among youth patients

Principal Investigators: Sandra Meier; Patricia Lingley-Pottie; Sageev Oore; Rita Orji

Co-investigators: Alexa Bagnell; Leslie Campbell; Jill Chorney; Janet Curran; Patrick McGrath; Envangelos Milios; Fernado Paulovich; Sherry Stewart; Rudolf Uher

Anxiety is the most common mental health problem among youth. About 11% of youth in Canada suffer from an anxiety disorder in any given year and this percentage has increased during the recent pandemic. Youth with anxiety disorders do worse at school, have poorer health outcomes and are more likely to die by suicide.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders in youth but many patients do not respond well enough. To decide if cognitive behavioural therapy is working well for their patient or if other treatment options should be considered, clinicians often rely on subjective data. However, clinical decision-making based on subjective data is difficult, as changes in symptoms might be sub-threshold, vary over time, or too small for patients to recognize.

In this study “Participants will rate their symptoms in brief surveys and install a mobile sensing app on their phones — which they are already familiar with and comfortable using regularly — to objectively record their behaviours from the start to end of their cognitive behavioural therapy,” explains Dr. Meier, one of the Principal Investigators leading this research team that will recruit 420 youth (aged 12-21) who are seeking care for anxiety. “Given this mode of data collection, our patients are empowered and feel like they can help advance their clinical care by sharing their information with us.”

Analyses will combine complex modelling and machine learning to identify objective predictors of clinical response.  The researchers will then discuss with youth patients and their clinicians, what to do when the mobile sensing data predict poor clinical response. Based on their ideas, feedback loops will be added to the app to suggest next steps.

More information, and a full list of Project Grant recipients can be found on the CIHR website.


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