Neurodegeneration, Eh? Meet Canada’s New Brain Research Juggernaut

It began assembling its team of scientific advisors in 2010, and it made its first awards last year. Now the Weston Brain Institute is finally declaring itself. Funded by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, the Canada-based institute is administratively independent, and committed to giving away $10 million per year specifically for research into the neurodegenerative diseases of aging.

That’s kind of a big deal. This category of diseases, which includes Alzheimer’s, ALS, dementia, Parkinson’s, and others, is notoriously underfunded. A lot of these diseases get sort of ambiguously lumped in with the “brain research” or “aging research” covered by other funders—which might explain why, until now, these diseases haven’t had an institute devoted solely to finding cures and treatments. Much less a Canadian one.

But they do now. The establishment of this institute marks a watershed moment in the history of the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. Though the foundation, which was established in the 1950s, has had a long-running interest in medical research, and has supported beneficiaries including the first Canadian Chair of Nutrition at McGill University, the Dalglish Hearts and Mind Clinic at University Health Network, and the Weston Fellows at the Centre for Research in neurodegenerative disease of aging at the University of Toronto, this is a much bigger deal than anything they’ve done in the past.

There’s also “buzz” to consider. It’s always a factor, on some level, when a foundation announces a new side project, institute, or award. In this case, the Westons are latching on to a fairly empty grant space—a sort of “new frontier” where substantial progress towards cures and treatments has yet to be made—and angling themselves to be a big fish in a small pond. Not only that, but they know the news media, all too eager to break stories about funders making big strides in aging-related diseases, will gladly come along for the ride. And the public, whose lives are impacted by the fallout of the neurodegenerative diseases of aging every day, will lap it up, too.

So they hope, at least. In the meantime, they’re going for the big, high-risk, high-reward projects—in this way, they remind me a little of the Ellison Medical Foundation, but hopefully without the SNAFU—and they're collaborating with some of the biggest names around, including the Michael J. Fox Foundation. They’re one to watch for sure.