Bringing Balance to the (Brain’s) Force

We know little about how the brain develops, but this neuroscientist has a promising idea about the roots of epilepsy and autism.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

When it comes to brain disorders like epilepsy, researchers like neuroscientist Julie Lefebvre are still trying to find a root cause. So they’re going back to the beginning to look for clues in the developing brain.

“We know very little about how the brain works and how it develops,” says Lefebvre. “Our goal is by understanding in much more detail how the brain develops and how these connections are established, we hope that this information will provide the blueprint in order to repair a lot of these disorders.”

Lefebvre, associate professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto and researcher at SickKids Hospital, studies the formation of complex patterns and connections in the brain. With over a billion neurons in the human brain, its development is a difficult thing to map. That’s why there are so many hypotheses around why epilepsy arises.

“One idea that we’re suggesting is that in the developing brain, there are not enough of the inhibitory cells that develop properly,” explains Lefebvre. “So sometimes there’s too much excitation, and what happens is that the neural circuits form a short circuit, and then it gives rise to epilepsy.”

If she’s right, it could open new possibilities for treating epilepsy patients by introducing more inhibitory nerve cells to restore normal neural circuits. Nerve cells are highly plastic, says Lefebvre. And that means they can be taken from one location or grown in a dish and placed in the brain where they are needed.

“By providing these inhibitory nerve cells that we think are lost in diseases like epilepsy and autism, by restoring them,” adds Lefebvre, “then this will help bring back the balance into neural circuits, and bring back healthy function of the brain.”

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

Dr. Julie Lefebvre is a Scientist in the Neurosciences and Mental Health Program at the Hospital for Sick Children. She is also an Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics at University of Toronto. She is Canada Research Chair in Neural Circuit Development. In 2015, she was awarded a Sloan Fellowship in Neuroscience by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. She earned her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, and completed her postdoctoral training at Harvard University.

The research focus of her lab is to study how nerve cells develop and wire up into neural circuits, and to identify molecules that guide the formation of these connectivity patterns in the visual system, cortex and cerebellum. In particular, they are investigating the development of inhibitory nerves that are critical for the balance between excitation and inhibition, and that are especially vulnerable to early life insults and disease.  Her research incorporates cutting-edge microscopy, studies of animal models, and profiling the expression of molecules during brain development.  This research is motivated by the overarching goal to better understand how neural circuits develop in the healthy brain, and identify genetic and developmental alterations in circuits that underlie brain disorders. Her research is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, NSERC and Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation.

Research2Reality is a groundbreaking initiative that shines a spotlight on world-class scientists engaged in innovative and leading edge research in Canada. Our video series is continually updated to celebrate the success of researchers who are establishing the new frontiers of science and to share the impact of their discoveries with the public.