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U of T researcher earns world’s richest prize for brain research

Graham Collingridge began work on his prize-winning discovery in long-term potentiation as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s.

A University of Toronto scientist who specializes in the neurobiological underpinnings of memory and learning has won the world's most valuable prize for brain research.

Graham Collingridge, chair of U of T's physiology department and a senior investigator at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, is one of three researchers named on Tuesday as recipients of this year's €1-million ($1.5-million Canadian) Brain Prize.

The achievement is a first for any researcher based in Canada. It also comes with a certain degree of irony, given that Dr. Collingridge was recently turned down for funding by the federal government and other supporters of brain research in Canada.

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Dr. Collingridge is known for his research on a mechanism called long-term potentiation. It is the systematic reinforcement of connections between individual neurons in the brain by repeated stimulation. The process has been shown to be crucial for learning and for maintaining memories over the course of a lifetime.

"I think memory is intrinsically one of the most interesting and important problems in biology," Dr. Collingridge told The Globe and Mail after learning of the award. "Our memories define who we are."

Pioneering work on how the brain makes memories dates back to Donald Hebb, a McGill University psychologist who in 1949 suggested that the learning process must involve the strengthening of synaptic connections between brain cells rather than generation of new cells. In 1973, one of Dr. Hebb's PhD students, Timothy Bliss, now at University College London, was among the first to find evidence for such a process.

Together with Dr. Bliss and Richard Morris of the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Collingridge has been awarded for showing how long-term potentiation works.

Although relatively new, the Brain Prize, which is awarded by the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation in Denmark, has become known as one of the most prestigious in neuroscience.

Dr. Collingridge, who was born in Britain, began working on his prize-winning discovery while a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s. His contribution was working out the key role that the protein N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) plays in changing the level of connectivity between neurons. The work, together with that of others, eventually led to the development of the drug memantine, which targets NMDA receptors and is currently the only treatment available for moderate-to-severe Alzheimer's disease.

In 1983, Dr. Collingridge was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Bristol in Britain, where he has spent most of his research career. He came to Canada last year to take up his current position at U of T.

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"The research environment in Toronto is simply amazing," said Dr. Collingridge, who added that the combination of a major research university linked to a large number of hospitals and research institutes made the opportunity to come to Canada too good to pass up.

He praised the university and also the Canada Foundation for Innovation for helping him set up a new laboratory last year to expand his research. But in what appears to be a case of misaligned priorities, Dr. Collingridge was unsuccessful in obtain operational funding from the Canadian Institute for Health Research, the federal government's primary conduit for supporting medical researchers in Canada.

Dr. Collingridge was eligible and had applied for a new funding stream known as the foundational scheme, but he was turned down in the first round of the latest funding cycle.

Peggy Borbey, who directs the federal funding process, said she could not comment on individual applications, but she said that, with constrained resources, the funding environment for medical researchers in Canada has become extremely competitive.

"We basically have the elite competing with the elite and there are a larger number of people who are absolutely excellent who did not get funding this time around," she said.

There were more than 900 applications for the current cycle, with finalists to be announced in July.

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Brain Canada, which has allocated $200-million to neuroscience in Canada through a matching-funds model, similarly did not select Dr. Collingridge for funding this year.

Inez Jabalpurwala, president of Brain Canada, said the selection process was rigorous and has brought a new stream of funding to brain science in Canada. She praised Dr. Collingridge and said his situation underlines why the "job is not done."

Dr. Collingridge, now armed with some prize money and additional international validation of his work, said he would continue to apply for funding and work toward building up Toronto as a hub of brain research, including the translation of discoveries from the laboratory to the clinic where it will benefit those with Alzheimer's and other brain disorders that appear to be linked to NMDA, including autism and schizophrenia.

"The hope is we can start to develop better treatments for these disorders, and that's why being embedded in a researcher institute within a hospital is such a great place to be," he said.

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