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St. Michael’s and Ryerson hit the road to drive neuroscience research

Toronto, May 19, 2014

By Evelyne Jhung

Kristin Vesely monitors Reyhaneh Nosrati’s performance
St. Michael’s student Kristin Vesely monitors Ryerson student Reyhaneh Nosrati’s performance on a driving simulator using functional near-infrared spectroscopy. (Photo by Yuri Markarov)

Dr. Tom Schweizer really wants to get into your car. And your mind. Preferably at the same time.

Dr. Schweizer, director of the Neuroscience Research Program, maps drivers’ brains to see which areas activate or shut down when they perform complicated maneuvers, such as making left turns at busy intersections, or are distracted by talking on a cell phone.

He puts healthy young drivers into a high-powered functional MRI and has them operate a driving simulator equipped with a steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator. St. Michael’s is one of only two centres in the world with a fully immersive and MRI-compatible driving simulator.

But operating the equipment is expensive, about $600 an hour. So Dr. Schweizer was excited to meet Dr. Vlad Toronov, a physicist at Ryerson University, while organizing the neuroscience component of last June’s second annual Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences Technology, or iBEST, Research Symposium. The event showcases the work of St. Michael’s and Ryerson scientists and students.

Dr. Toronov has a portable imaging device called a functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, that is strapped onto a study participant’s head and can map the brain while the participant performs tasks in real-world conditions. It’s also quieter and much less expensive than an MRI.

Dr. Schweizer recently used the fNIRS to test 16 undergraduate students to see whether the results are as accurate as the studies conducted in the MRIs.

“We’re working with them to test out a more cost effective way of visualizing the brain while driving and investigating the effects of distracted driving,” said Dr. Schweizer. “This brings us one step closer to our ultimate goal of developing a practical, evidence-based and affordable test for evaluating fitness to drive. The purpose of using fNIRS is to make brain imaging more affordable not only for researchers but as a potential diagnostic tool as well.”

Dr. Schweizer said he can see one day being able to take the fNIRS into a car and map a driver’s brain activity in real time on a real road rather than in a simulator.

His joint study with Ryerson is part of iBEST. Announced in November 2013, iBEST is a 20-year partnership between Ryerson and St. Michael’s. It is a collaboration enabling Ryerson faculty to have access to resources at the hospital’s Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute (including core lab facilities, researchers, clinicians and patients) and St. Michael’s staff and researchers access to Ryerson’s bioengineering expertise.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.