Welcome to the Christie Laboratory at the University of Victoria, which is situated on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen speaking peoples of Vancouver Island.
The Christie Lab studies a variety of forms of neuroplasticity, including synaptic plasticity, metaplasticity, and neurogenesis, to better understand both the intrinsic processing capacities of the brain, how it responds to injury, and it’s capacity for self-repair. In our basic science lab we use an array of specialized techniques, including electrophysiology, immunohistochemistry and protein analysis, and are always seeking to improve our technical skill sets. In the Concussion Lab, we have a number of patient-orientated research projects where we work directly with individuals that have experienced mild to moderate brain injury. We also work with sports teams, schools, and aging populations.
We have a diverse and inclusive team of researchers. One my passions is providing opportunities for underrepresented minorities, and we regularly mentor undergraduates in the lab. A significant proportion of these students go on to graduate studies, MD or other professional degree training programs. I believe part of my job is to assist all trainees in achieving success. Towards this end, I helped to found the University of Victoria’s graduate program in Neuroscience, and have served on a variety of committees that promote inclusive training.
Our funding comes from a wide variety of sources, including CIHR, NSERC, FRAXA, FXRFC, Azrieli, NIH, CFI, and generous donations from individuals in the community who support our work.
For individuals looking to volunteer in studies in the Concussion Lab, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
List of projects we have recently recieved funding for:
MITACS Accelerate - From stress to success: Investigating the effects of a 3D-multiple object tracking intervention on markers of oxidative stress in brain injury survivors. (MSc Trainee Jamie Morrison)
The primary goal of this project is to examine if a three-dimensional multiple object tracking (3D-MOT) cognitive training intervention can improve global outcomes relating to disability in people with chronic moderate to severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI can result in physical, emotional, and social challenges that may drastically impair an individual’s quality of life. Accessible and effective therapeutic interventions for symptom management and recovery in brain injury survivors are lacking. 3D-MOT is a promising therapeutic tool for improved cognition that can be administered at home with a low-cost. It is important to investigate how these accessible tools can impact outcomes in TBI survivors, and therefore we aim to test the hypothesis that 3D-MOT improves functional outcomes and quality of life in people with chronic moderate to severe TBI. In collaboration with the Victoria Brain Injury Society, our goal is to conduct a randomized controlled trial with a five-week at-home 3D-MOT intervention. Participants will undergo standardized assessments and blood collection at baseline, 1-week, and 1-month following the 3D-MOT intervention. Secondary goals of this study include quantifying serum markers of oxidative stress and inflammation, along with cognitive performance, in hopes of better understanding and validating 3D-MOT as a therapeutic intervention for TBI.
MITACS Accelerate - The Neural Mechanisms Underlying the Effect of a Standardized Equine Assisted Therapy Intervention on Stress Resilience and Executive Function in Autism. (PhD Trainee Rebecca Phillips; co-supervised with Dr. Sarah Macoun)
A growing body of evidence offers a broad proof of concept for the efficacy of equine assisted therapy (EAT) in the treatment of autism, with studies reporting numerous cognitive, social, and emotional benefits. However, there is a need to expand upon current findings on the effect of EAT on the underlying neural mechanisms of stress resilience and executive function. Prior research shows that chronic stress and anxiety is increased in autism compared with typically developing individuals and is associated with aspects of cognitive dysfunction. Further, stress resilience is shown to be a dynamic adaptive process which can be learned. Training to cope with stress builds resilience through learning and memory mechanisms. Horses are particularly well suited to helping people learn as they provide a relational form of biofeedback, primarily through movement, body language, visual and tactile signals. EAT provides a potential source of co-regulation and an opportunity for learning conscious control of nervous system regulation and the stress response, which can enhance therapeutic and learning outcomes. A randomized controlled study with children and youth is expected to demonstrate neuroplasticity, improved stress resilience and cognitive control, and decreased stress response following EAT training. The anticipated significance of the research is that the findings will establish effects of EAT on task-related performance such as attention, emotion, and cognition in autism. The findings will also contribute to development and testing of theoretical frameworks for a specific EAT intervention focused on stress resilience called CalmwardTM developed by the partner organization, Forward Equestrian Inc. Interventions will be developed into standardized practical programming for children and youth with autism, and related health services and products for commercialization.
NHMRC - Brain Injury in intimate partner violence: Insight into a silent pandemic. (PhD Trainee Justin Brand; co-supervised with Dr. Sandy Shultz)
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious societal and medical issue worldwide that has severe and long-term impacts on the lives of women. In Australia, IPV affects one in six women and is the leading cause of preventable death, disability, and illness in Australian women aged 15 to 44. Approximately one Australian woman is killed every week by a male intimate partner. One in five assault hospitalisations are IPV related, with women making up over 70% of hospitalised survivors. Over 60% of these hospitalisations involve an injury to the head and/or neck. This cohort likely constitutes the “tip of the iceberg”, with many survivors of IPV never accessing the medical care they need. Unfortunately, the prevalence, severity, and frequency of IPV has been exacerbated since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the consequential lockdown periods.
Of the many challenges faced by IPV survivors, traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a result of the physical attacks is likely one of the most significant – with both short- and long-term impacts. Although initial studies suggest there is evidence of brain injury in 60-92% of IPV survivors, the nature of this brain damage and how it contributes to their lived experience has been remarkably understudied. TBI falls on a spectrum, ranging from mild to severe, with mild TBI (mTBI) being the most common in the general population as well as in IPV. There has been a substantial surge in mTBI (e.g. concussion) research in the past decade, however this has largely focused in the context of mTBI in athletes and military personnel. These studies are useful in the sense that there is now a growing consensus that mTBIs can result in debilitating and persisting neurological issues. However, it cannot be assumed that these findings are generalisable to the brain injury that occurs in IPV. The pathophysiology of brain injury that occurs in IPV is likely unique compared to other contexts because in IPV the mTBI typically occurs in combination with non-fatal strangulation (NFS), and this added hypoxic/ischemic insult may exacerbate mTBI pathophysiology. Moreover, the injuries often occur in the context of psychological trauma, which may further worsen the effects.
The poor understanding of the consequences and burden of mTBI in IPV is a major knowledge gap that is imperative to address if we are to improve the care and outcomes for IPV survivors. Advanced neuroimaging (e.g. MRI and PET), blood biomarkers, and neuropsychological assessment are clinically applicable methods that are sensitive to the pathophysiological and functional consequences of mTBI, and can be used to bridge the knowledge gap pertaining to brain injury in IPV. With that said, the many confounding variables in this population make it difficult to adequately investigate the effects of mTBI and/or NFS purely in patients. Therefore, we have developed the first rodent model of combined mTBI and NFS to provide translational insight into this question.
MITACS Accelerate - Can low-dose psilocybin have therapeutic value in treating and preventing depression and anxiety? (PhD Trainee Alanna Kit)
The goal of this study is to discover if chronic low dose psilocybin reduces anxiety and depressive-like behaviours in a chronic unpredictable stress test model for rodents by enhancing adult neurogenesis. Psilocybin has potential therapeutic value for a number of neurological disorders, including depression, anxiety, neurodegeneration, PTSD, and traumatic brain-injury. It has been hypothesized that its anti-inflammatory actions may contribute to its efficacy, but the actual mechanism of action remains unclear. The vagus nerve is one of the primary bidirectional routes of communication between the gut and the brain and there is potential for it to activate both serotonin receptors and pathways involved in inflammation and the brain. We will test this hypothesis using an animal model of depression (chronic unpredictable stress; CUS), that is associated with as changes in animal behaviour indicative of depression, an increase in inflammatory biomarkers, as well as reductions in the structure and function of the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning, memory, and emotional processing. Psilocybin has antidepressant-like behavioural effects and can promote neurogenesis, dendritic spine plasticity and the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus through activation of the 5HT2A serotonin receptor pathway. Our goal is to determine if low-dose administration of psilocybin prior to exposure to CUS has neuroprotective effects, and will reduce the impact of CUS on behavioural, structural and functional measures. To better understand the potential therapeutic effects of sustained release chronic low dose psilocybin on these levels, more investigation is required to understand the mechanistic action at which synaptic neuroplasticity occurs in specific regions of the brain and the signalling cascade involved.
Bringing focus to the invisible injury: Defining a role for microbleeds and microglia in mild traumatic brain injury. $967,725 over 5 years.
Concussions are a form of mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), often called the “unseen injury”, because of the lack of obvious damage. As a result, many individuals suffer repeated concussions, often in short time spans. In some sports, like hockey and football, awareness is growing that repeated sub-concussive blows to the head are routinely incurred in practices and games. Although many of these impacts do not result in a diagnosis of concussion, there is a growing appreciation that both concussions and sub-concussive impacts can negatively impact cognitive function in the developing brain, and that repeated concussions (r-mTBI) can have long-term detrimental effects for cognition in elderly populations. Despite these concerns, few laboratories have systematically studied r-mTBI in a preclinical model that properly mimics the human condition. We have recently developed a model that enables us to accurately examine r-mTBI and understand how the brain responds to repeated mTBI. Because significant structural damage does not occur in mTBI, our focus is on whether there is damage to small blood vessels in the brain. These vessels are below the threshold of resolution for magnetic resonance imaging, but can be resolved using high resolution microscopy. When damaged, these vessels can release a compound in the blood called fibrinogen. Fibrinogen is normally important for clotting, but can also initiate an inflammatory process involving brain microglia that negatively impacts neurons, and impairs learning and memory processes. The results of the proposed work will help us to better understand the mechanisms involved in mTBI; how they directly impact brain function, and increase our understanding of how r-mTBI early in life could negatively impact individuals as they age. More importantly, this work will enable us to determine the therapeutic value of modulating fibrinogen’s effects in the brain to help reduce the negative impact of r-mTBI on cognition.
Drinking with Mary Jane: Understanding how consuming alcohol and marijuana during pregnancy impacts the developing brain. $100,000 for 1 year
With the relaxation of cannabis restrictions across North America, a growing proportion of young adults (19-30 yrs of age) are reporting the Simultaneous use of Alcohol and Cannabis. The use of legal/illicit drugs in this age group is common, with cannabis being the most commonly used drug by pregnant women, and there are indications are that this trend will continue to rise. This is particularly true during periods of crises, like the current Covid-19 pandemic, when substance abuse issues increase significantly. The combined use of alcohol and cannabis also increases the risk of unplanned pregnancies significantly , and the 19-30 year old age demographic coincides with the peak fertility period for females. Although the prevalence rates for alcohol and cannabis use are likely to rise, the effects of combined prenatal ethanol and cannabis exposure on the developing brain remain poorly understood. Given our extensive history in using animal models to examine sex differences in FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders), and the role of cannabinoids in synaptic plasticity, our research team is in a unique position to contribute significantly to the understanding of how alcohol and cannabis exposure, alone or in combination, can differentially affect brain development in both sexes. In particular, this proposal also offers a creative means to new vapor chamber administration protocols to assess how alcohol and cannabis exposure during pregnancy effects the structure and function of the developing hippocampus. This is a brain region known to be involved in learning and memory processes, and it is important to understand how prenatal exposure impacts brain development in a sex specific fashion. In addition, we will also look at decision making processes in these offspring as they enter the adolescent period, to better understand how exposure early in life affects addictive behaviors later in life.
Congratulations Katie Neale and Team!
Congratulations to Katie Neale and the team for having their publication “Repeated mild traumatic brain injury causes sex-specific increases in cell proliferation and inflammation in juvenile rats” accepted in the Journal of Neuroinflammation (IF 9.2). What a great way to show off the amazing data set that was collected for Katie’s MSc. Also wishing the best of luck to her with her studies in medical school at the University of Limerick.
Congratulations Dr. Hannah Reid!
Dr. Reid recently completed her doctoral thesis on the effects of prenatal THC exposure on the rat hippocampus.
Christie Lab at SFN 2022!
Highlights from the Christie Lab’s visit to the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego.
PhD candidate Hannah Reid with her poster on the effects of prenatal alcohol and THC exposure.
PhD Candidate Taylor Snowden presenting her work on 3D-MOT as a cognitive intervention for adults with moderate to severe brain injuries.
MSc Student Allyson Gross with her poster on changes in synaptic plasticity following repeated mTBIs.
MSc student Irene Shkolnikov with her poster on the potential therapeutic effects of AdipoRon in Fragile X Syndrome.
Fiona Ramnaraign presenting her research on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and choline and exercise intervention.
Having dinner with Dr. Jennifer Thomas’s Lab!
Congratulations to Our Recent Graduates!
Dr. Erin Gräfe recently defended her work on fetal alcohol exposure.
Congratulations to Our Recent Graduates!
Allyson Gross completed her master’s thesis on changes in synaptic plasticity following repeated mTBIs.
Click here to view Jamie Morrison's wonderful JCURA 2022 poster!
SHINE a light on concussion awareness: efficacy of neuroeducation program in youth sports