Brain Power

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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Home > McGill News > 2001 > Winter 2001-2002 > Brain Power
Brain Power

Canadians are accustomed to complaints in the media about how the country's best minds from the academic and industrial sectors regularly pack up and head for greener pastures. But over the past several years, the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) has experienced a "reverse brain drain," attracting some of the brightest scientists and researchers from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa.

An institution with an illustrious past, the MNI is still growing and making headlines: Dr. Freda Miller's groundbreaking work on adult stem cells -- which may one day hold the cure to many human illnesses -- was one of several media-worthy discoveries this year.

Photo MNI founder Dr. Wilder Penfield

Interim director Dr. Donald Baxter, MSc'53, says the McGill teaching hospital and research centre is unique in North America in the way it has everyone under one roof, "all focussed on neurological disease." That structure exists thanks to the MNI's renowned founder and first director, Wilder Penfield, and was in place from the day the institute opened in 1934.

Penfield himself was lured to McGill from the U.S. with the promise of support for his personal vision of a place where research and treatment facilities were housed together. With backing secured from individual benefactors and local government, and a clear idea of how such an institute should be organized, Penfield was able to convince the Rockefeller Foundation to give $1.25 million to found "a centre for the continent."

"He created the first disease-oriented research team," Baxter says. "Penfield really showed that, working within a team, the staff could create more and imagine more things to do, and even let new disciplines evolve. So almost all of our groups are modeled after Penfield's ideal."

The Neuro, Baxter continues, "differs from most hospitals, in that we have departments of this and departments of that, but we operate more 'vertically' in terms of basic and clinical research activity." All departments are interdependent, communicating with each other in a patient-centred research and care network that stretches through the eight floors and five wings of the institute.


Within those walls operate over 230 MNI faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows -- the biggest single mass of neuroscientists in Canada. John Robson, Director for Scientific Affairs, cites the Neuro's "name recognition and quality of science" as selling points for prospective recruits. Indeed, the MNI is considered one of the pre-eminent neurological institutes in the world, and the only one to so completely integrate patient care.

Robson, who spent 18 years as a faculty member in the medical school of SUNY (State University of New York) at Syracuse, also notes that "there is a culture of collaboration and cooperation here that was not as evident to me in the U.S." Within the framework of the Penfield model, researchers and physicians freely exchange hypotheses, progress and results, leading to what Robson called the MNI's "collegial atmosphere."

For instance, a look inside the Brain Tumour Research Centre reveals doctors, research assistants and students all based in the same open lab space, sharing their work and findings, analyzing data at a bank of computer screens, even as they eat their lunches from Tupperware containers. This is not for all personalities, of course; some people thrive in a more isolated, race-you-to-the-top setting. But for those who like an environment where a holistic approach is upheld, the MNI is without equal, and the approach has made it a world leader in the neurology community.

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