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Unlocking the secrets of the brain key to treating and managing dementia

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Dr. Sultan Darvesh looks at brain tissue samples at the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank.

By: Allison Currie

Nova Scotia has a thriving research community dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of the brain. Nova Scotia Health works in collaboration with academic institutions and other partners to bring together multidisciplinary teams of neuroscientists, clinicians and others that tackle challenges ranging from neurodegenerative diseases to brain injury rehabilitation.

One of many specialties that fall within the range of neurology research is cognitive/behavioral neurology. Cognitive/behavioral neurological research is focused on those with neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia. According to the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia an estimated 733,040 people in Canada are living with dementia, including over 16,000 Nova Scotians, and that could increase to nearly one million Canadians by 2030. With these numbers rising, research is incredibly important to ensure that you and your loved ones are receiving the best possible care.

While many people are familiar with common symptoms of “dementia”, like memory loss, difficulties with visuospatial function (getting lost in familiar environment), language function (inability to express oneself) and executive functions (inability to plan, organize and complete tasks), the term "dementia" does not refer to one specific condition. In the clinic, dementia is used to describe a set of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain. While Alzheimer’s disease is the most known disorder, the term “dementia” can also refer to vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia and more.

These subtle differences are important to note, because to properly diagnose and treat a patient, and to improve care in the future, understanding each disorder and its cause through research is key. There is a need to find ways of identifying subtypes of dementia to design future treatments tailored to each individual’s unique needs. Luckily, there are dedicated individuals like Dr. Sultan Darvesh who is the Irene Macdonald Sobeys Chair in Curative Approaches to Alzheimer’s Disease within the Divisions of Neurology and Geriatric Medicine. He leads a team of professionals that work collaboratively with researchers across the province, and around the world, to learn more about dementia.

Dr. Darvesh is a medicinal chemist, neuroscientist and cognitive/behavioral neurologist. For the past 29 years, he has worked in a teaching and research capacity and clinically as a neurologist with Nova Scotia Health at the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

Dr. Darvesh’s background in medicinal chemistry combined with neurology makes him an excellent candidate for understanding both the brain, and how therapeutic treatments (like medications) can treat or worsen dementia. Understanding the intricacies of the human brain, and the causes of neurological disorders, is crucial in developing these therapeutic treatments because they can do more harm than good if a diagnosis is incorrect or if there isn’t enough information about the disease itself.

But how does one study the brain? The best approach involves hands-on study of human brain tissue. This is where the generosity of donors come into play via the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank. Located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank is playing a pivotal role in advancing this type of knowledge, offering researchers access to a valuable resource – the brain itself.

Established in 1993, with support from the Alzheimer Society of Nova ScotiaDalhousie University and Nova Scotia Health, the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank has collected over 1500 brains through donation and make them available for researchers around the world who are trying to better understand the causes of dementia and other neurological diseases. These generous donations provide researchers with a unique opportunity to study the structure, function, and molecular characteristics of the human brain, shedding light on the underlying mechanisms of neurological disorders. This allows for improved diagnostic approaches and therapeutic interventions and patient outcomes.

“There is no satisfactory animal or cell model for dementia syndromes like AD,” says Dr. Darvesh. “Thus, it is imperative to use human brain tissues to understand normal function and changes that occur in the brain associated with neurological disease. To paraphrase the great English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) “Know then thyself; presume not God to scan, the proper study of humankind is human.”

The impact of the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank extends far beyond the borders of the Maritime provinces, contributing to the global effort to unravel the complexities of the human brain and develop new strategies for diagnosing, treating, and preventing neurological disorders.

Although dementia has been studied in one form or another for over 100 years, Dr. Darvesh hopes that research such as that facilitated by the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank will continue to help with further breakthroughs in the future.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” says Dr. Darvesh. “You have to be to do this type of research. My mentor once told me to find the toughest challenge in research and stick with it. Understanding Alzheimer’s has been the toughest challenge I’ve seen. So, my hope for the future would be to find a better understanding of dementia, leading to improved diagnostic testing that would allow for better therapeutic treatments for patients.”

The Maritime Brain Tissue Bank does not receive its donations through the regular organ donor program. To learn more, or to become a donor, visit their website.


Research is care, and clinical studies help translate research into potentially life-changing therapies that can help you, your friends and your loved ones. Want to know more about how to get involved? Visit Nova Studies Connect today: