Towards a breakthrough for understanding the brain

Kevin Whittingstall was interested early in pure physics. After completing his undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Montreal, he started studying medical imaging at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. human. A new interest that led this man from the Eastern Townships to spend five years doing a postdoctorate dedicated to neuroscience in Germany.
Puring this time, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, grew a teenager fascinated by mathematics bored at school in this matter in which he excelled. To give himself a goal, to surpass himself, Michael Bernier then chose to devote all his energies to computer science … while there was never a computer at home. This new passion would bring him to the master’s degree at the Université de Sherbrooke (UdeS). He liked computers, yes, but he also wanted his knowledge to one day help people … and neuroscience would become all right for that.

And it was after this master’s degree in computer science that the paths of Kevin Whittingstall and Michaël Bernier met at UdeS.

“I was hired as a professor at UdeS in 2011 after my postdoctoral position. When I arrived, I hired Michael to help me get my lab off the ground, “explains Kevin Whittingstall, who is also a researcher at the Sherbrooke University Hospital Research Center (CRCHUS).

“It was not in my plans at first, but I decided to do my doctorate in Kevin’s team,” adds Michaël Bernier.

Disease of the vascular system

Let’s talk a bit about the basic hypothesis of the two researchers. The understanding and diagnosis of several degenerative brain diseases is limited because the origin of these diseases is still unknown. We are thinking here of Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, psychiatric diseases as well, in short, all the diseases that originate in the brain. And if we could understand the origin of these diseases? The impacts would be enormous: we could make a diagnosis much earlier, find new ways of treatment.

The hypothesis developed by researchers Whittingstall and Bernier is that the neurodegeneration present in these diseases of the brain would not be the cause of the disease. It would be rather the vascular system that would be sick.

With his great background in computer science, Michael Bernier has developed hyperspecialized software and declared “revolutionary” by doctors and researchers from around the world since the publication of an article in Human Brain Mapping magazine almost a year ago. This software made it possible to create an atlas including a bank of images of the blood vessels in healthy humans. These images could serve as a reference for targeting alterations in people with vascular degeneration.

Open Science

Having in his hands a powerful computer tool that could change the understanding of certain diseases, Michael Bernier has decided not to apply for a patent. “I believe in open science. Our technology is available to other researchers around the world, online, for free. We believe that, thanks to this approach, if the software is used by different researchers in different contexts, the development will be faster and can bring concrete results more quickly, “says Michael Bernier.

“This type of approach allows for more collaborative, less competitive research. It can perhaps lead to applications that we have not thought of yet, “adds Professor Whittingstall.

The future of technology is therefore extremely promising. UdeS is the world’s leading researcher on the vascular system of the brain.

The niche is so promising that Michaël Bernier left for a few months to do a postdoctoral fellowship at the prestigious Harvard Medical School in Boston. Here as everywhere in the United States, the pace of work is difficult, the pace is intense. But passionately, Michaël Bernier continues his research and is a very good ambassador for UdeS with its technology that interests researchers around the globe.

“As we have technology, Harvard Medical School wants us to take the lead in one of their projects. We are talking about a large university that usually collaborates with the largest American universities. And there, they want to associate with a Quebec university, francophone! It’s really fun and it’s extremely rare as a situation, “said Michaël Bernier proudly.

After completing his studies, Michaël Bernier would very much like to come and teach at UdeS and have his own laboratory next to his mentor’s. By bringing together their two knowledge and their own expertise, they believe that their efforts could bear fruit even more quickly and have an even faster impact on patients, here and elsewhere.

“I hope we will convince the UdeS that they have everything to gain by bringing together Professors Whittingstall and Bernier! Laughs Kevin Whittingstall.

If the technology is not used to treat patients at this time, it can already, sometimes, make a difference in the lives of patients who consult doctors opening in the university hospitals of the CIUSSS of Estrie-CHUS.

“We sometimes have requests from doctors to brainstorm patients who resist conventional treatments. Soon, for example, we will be making images of a patient who has epilepsy that does not respond to treatment, “says researcher Whittingstall.

And it is certainly in these situations that both men find their greatest pride in all the work they have done so far!


Kevin Whittingstall
Born in Richmond, Estrie
Father of Henri, two and a half years old, of George, one year old, and spouse of Lisa
A. He began his undergraduate studies in physics at Concordia University in Montreal in 1997

Michaël Bernier
Born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu
33 years old
Started his university studies at the UdeS at the bachelor’s degree in Imaging and digital media (computer science) in 2005

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