Montreal researcher tests novel neurotechnology to help stroke survivors regain muscle control

According to data collected by Public Health Agency of Canada, approximately 878,500 Canadian adults over the age of 20 have experienced a stroke, a sudden loss of brain function caused by a brain blood vessel blockage or rupture.

Future Leader in Canadian Brain Research, Dr. Marco Bonizzato, and his team at Polytechnique Montréal, are researching Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), a new technology that allows the brain to communicate with external devices in real time, to help people with motor problems due to stroke regain control of their muscles.

The main application of BCIs is to help someone who has suffered paralysis control external devices through the decoding of movement intention signals from the brain. BCIs are used to control stimulation of the spine and muscles and reactivate paralyzed muscles, typically by reading signals from the primary motor cortex – the area of the brain primarily responsible for controlling movement. Because stroke survivors sometimes experience damage to the motor cortex that precludes them from the possibility of using BCIs, there is a gap in who can benefit from this promising technology. 

By exploring if and how BCIs can be used to read motor intention signals from other parts of the brain that survived the stroke, Dr. Bonizzato’s research on rodents will provide insight into an alternative way to use BCIs so that they can eventually be considered an option even for people whose motor cortex is compromised.

“We are looking at the brain as a whole. Through this research, we will assess whether areas other than the motor cortex can become new targets for BCIs to understand and predict movement intentions.”

Dr. Marco Bonizzato

Dr. Bonizzato is one of 88 Canadian researchers to have received funding to date through Brain Canada’s Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research program since 2019. Dr. Bonizzato’s award is made possible by the Canada Brain Research Fund (CBRF), an innovative arrangement between the Government of Canada (through Health Canada), Brain Canada Foundation, and Hewitt Foundation.

Anchored by a lead gift from the Azrieli Foundation, the Future Leaders program aims to accelerate novel and transformative research that will fundamentally change our understanding of nervous system function and dysfunction and their impact on health. Since its inception, the program has invested $8 million to advance the search for answers to brain diseases and disorders, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, brain cancer, autism, substance use disorders, mental illnesses and more. To date, at least eight patents have been filed for discoveries resulting from Future Leader projects, and more than $64 million in additional funding has been awarded to recipients to amplify their research.

“Supporting the next generation of scientists is a key focus for Brain Canada as we believe they have the talent and ingenuity to move the needle in Canadian brain research. We are investing directly in trainees and early-career researchers so that we can catalyze their potential and foster bold, unorthodox, and exploratory research that is poised to have a positive impact on the lives of all people in Canada.”

Dr. Viviane Poupon, Brain Canada President and CEO

The Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research Program is one of several Brain Canada flagship programs that focuses on building capacity within the brain research landscape. By providing funding to early-career researchers at critical junctures in their careers, Brain Canada is building Canada’s pipeline of neuroscience leaders and a foundation of research excellence and innovation.

“The Future Leader grant allows me to open a whole new block of research that is fundamental to the way I envision my lab.”

“This kind of research will have an impact on a large spectrum of interventions that go beyond stroke and traumatic brain injury. It comes with transferrable research products that are completely open sourced to the outside world, so that if we discover something, it will serve as a fundamental basis for our understanding of how the brain controls movement and communication, so that others can build on it.”

Dr. Marco Bonizzato