Heather Whittaker

University of Winnipeg undergraduate Biopsychology student Heather Whittaker was granted the first ever ICAN-WISE Scholarship to support research with her mentor Dr. Melanie Martin, in the departments of Physics and Astronomy and Radiology at the University of Manitoba.

Dr. Martin's team is examining differences in the brains of mice with signs and symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, using state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods to understand the signs of disease in the brain tissue. A change in the size of the hippocampus - a brain region that is involved with memory - could be used for early diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Ms Whittaker began working with Dr. Martin at the beginning of May 2014 and has collected MR images for several mice.

She is learning about the physics of MR and gaining experience with the operation of a 7T MRI machine. Dr. Martin is currently helping Ms Whittaker develop computing programs for analysis of the images. Once this is done, they will be able to compare results between healthy and diseased mice, and determine if there are pathological changes in the hippocampus.

The implications of what they hope to find may be particularly important and beneficial for First Nations people in the Prairies. In these communities, dementia is an emerging health concern that disproportionately affects younger males, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common cause of dementia.

Ms Whittaker’s collaboration with Dr. Martin has provided a unique opportunity to combine biological and physical sciences, and develop imaging techniques that may later have medical applications.

“Heather has far exceeded my expectations for her project. I expect a publication will come out of this work,” said Dr Martin.

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