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The puzzle of the human brain

Queen’s professor Gordon Boyd, an intensive care specialist and clinician scientist in the Kingston General Hospital Research Institute (KGHRI), is researching a puzzle. Why does a critical illness, such as cardiac arrest, affect the brain long after the rest of the body has healed?

“Patients are released from ICU when they don’t need breathing support, medication support, when their body seems to be working,” says Dr. Boyd (School of Medicine). “But we don’t talk to them about how their brain is working. Right now there’s almost no data about patients’ recovery in ICU. We have no idea how well these people do after they leave the ICU or the hospital.”

Dr. Boyd is uniquely positioned to explore this new frontier. With a PhD in neuroscience and an MD from Queen’s School of Medicine, he is one of only two or three critical care physicians in Canada who is also a certified specialist in neurology. His appointment as a clinician scientist gives him the opportunity to integrate his front-line care of patients with his research, and ultimately translate that research into better care and better quality of life for his patients.  

“Critical care is a research priority for both Kingston General Hospital and the Queen's School of Medicine, and Dr. Boyd’s unique background in this area made him the perfect choice for our clinician scientist program,” says Roger Deeley, president of the KGHRI and vice-dean research, Faculty of Health Sciences. “His work is an excellent example of how collaboration between the hospital and the university can lead to new discoveries and potentially better treatments and outcomes for patients.” 

Dr. Boyd is studying how the loss of blood and oxygen delivery to the brain, common effects of critical illness, can lead to worse performance while in intensive care, potentially affecting long-term neurological recovery. His research focuses on two patient groups: those undergoing cardiac surgery, and those suffering a critical illness such as septic shock. 

He will monitor patients while in intensive care, and then do follow-up assessments three, six and 12 months later using the KINARM, a robotic tool invented at Queen’s University by a fellow neuroscientist, Stephen Scott. Data collected by the tool generates a valuable “fingerprint” of what the patient’s brain impairment looks like. 

“Parts of the brain that handle sensory, motor and cognitive tasks are more susceptible to low blood pressure and low oxygen,” says Dr. Boyd. “The KINARM is the perfect instrument for assessing these areas of the brain. I’m using it to identify the degree of dysfunction that these patients have, and correlating it to brain function.”

This story is the second in a series on the KGH Research Institute and the clinician-scientists recruited to work in the centre.