Brain Researchers to Develop New Class of Drugs to Repair Psychiatric Disorders

“Smart” drugs capable of targeting specific brain cells to control psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia may be ready for early clinical trials within three years, with the launch of a $1.5 million project to take place at the Brain Research Centre (BRC), a partnership of the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute (VCHRI).

The new drugs would be the first significant change in decades to
medications used to treat psychiatric disorders, says neuroscientist and
team leader Yu Tian Wang, a UBC professor of Medicine and BRC member.
“We’re designing a whole new generation of medications that will work
only on brain cells in areas that need to be repaired,” says Wang. “This new
type of drug will correct abnormal brain functions in a targeted way, so
patients don’t experience the side effects found in existing medications
that affect the whole brain.”

One of only three investigations funded in NeuroScience Canada’s new
Brain Repair Program, the project brings together five researchers from
across Canada, including three investigators from the BRC at UBC Hospital.
Healthy brain functioning relies on a balance between the chemical
messengers that stimulate brain cell activity (excitatory neurotransmitters)
and those that diminish activity (inhibitory neurotransmitters.) When
balance is disrupted, the flow of information among brain cells in certain
areas becomes confused.

The result is impairments in perception, thought and behaviour seen in patients with brain disorders ranging from autism to major psychoses including schizophrenia and depression. Using sophisticated equipment to view, study and manipulate brain messaging at the cellular level, the team will test their design of a type of drug that can fine-tune communication between brain cells and bring excitatory and inhibitory activity into a healthy balance.

Existing anti-psychotic drugs adjust communication on cell surfaces
throughout the brain. Balance is restored in affected areas, however, the
drugs may cause imbalance in normal, unaffected areas, leading to negative
side effects. Side effects can range from sluggishness, insomnia and anxiety
to severe psychoses, and limit prolonged use of these medications.
The new generation of “smart” drugs will target only the cells where
communication balance is impaired, leaving healthy areas of the brain
unaffected.

Wang estimates the new type of drug could be available to patients
within five to 10 years.

Brain and nervous system disorders affect one in five Canadians and
are among the leading causes of death in this country and are the leading
cause of disability. Health Canada has estimated the economic burden of
these disorders at $22.7 billion and costs are expected to rise
significantly as the population ages.

Other team members are: (in alphabetical order) Assistant Prof. Alaa
El-Husseini, UBC Dept. of Psychiatry and BRC; Associate Prof. Stephen
Ferguson, University of Western Ontario; Assistant Prof. Ridha Joober,
McGill University; Professor Anthony Phillips, UBC Dept. of Psychiatry and
BRC.

The Brain Research Centre, located at UBC Hospital, comprises more
than 160 investigators with multidisciplinary expertise in neuroscience
research ranging from the test tube, to the bedside, to industrial
spin-offs.

NeuroScience Canada’s Brain Repair Program is an $8-million program
that has received major support from the Canadian Institutes of Health
Research (CIHR) to support Canada’s world-class neuroscience researchers.
Further information about the NeuroScience Canada awards may be found at
http://www.neurosciencecanada.ca.

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