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BRI researcher’s brain studies are mind blowing

Dr. Deryk Beal loves brains. No, he’s not a zombie. 

He’s a clinician-scientist and a speech-language pathologist at the Bloorview Research Institute (BRI) who also happens to be an expert in developmental cognitive neuroimaging. 

That’s a fancy way of saying he looks at images of the brain to better understand how it develops in kids with disabilities. 

He believes studying brain images can unlock mysteries surrounding how kids with disabilities learn language and speech.

Stimulating studies

Dr. Beal’s work also goes from examination to stimulation with research in a field called neuromodulation.

That involves administering very small electric or magnetic energy pulses to specific parts of the brain to trigger brain pathways that facilitate learning.  

“It sounds intimidating but it’s not at all,” said Dr. Beal. “It has tremendous potential…in the adult world it’s been used for a long time. It’s only over the last few years that it’s been modified for kids,” he said.

Dr. Beal is at the forefront of this field. In fact, he’s one of the few scientists in the world exploring neuromodulation in children.  

“We use this technology in combination with traditional speech and language therapy and the evidence is just developing for this approach,” he said.  “Theoretically, it can improve the learning process and when used in the right way, it can help kids learn more, and more quickly.”

That could translate into kids recovering their speech after a traumatic brain injury faster, overcoming apraxia of speech with enhanced motor learning or expanding their vocabulary beyond what was possible with traditional speech therapy alone.  

Giving the brain a boost

Neuromodulation systems are pretty straight forward. They consist of power source that’s connected either to electrodes or a coil that are placed against the outside of a child’s head. 

Just where they are placed is the key, as Dr. Beal is trying to target specific areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory, speaking and listening.  

While Dr. Beal’s research is already filled with promise, his research could take a giant leap forward this year with the success of the Bloorview Research Institute Growth Strategy. 

It’s a $25 million campaign deigned to give the BRI the funding, equipment and support it needs to stand tall on the world stage of childhood disability research.

For Dr. Beal, the BRI Growth Strategy represents a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

There has not been a significant breakthrough in speech-language rehabilitation science in 40 years and this expansion would put Holland Bloorview in a position to change that.

Child-friendly MRI could open doors and minds

Topping the BRI Growth Strategy’s wish list is a fully accessible, child-friendly MRI.

“I will use this tool to better understand the developing brain of the kids with speech language impairments, and then leverage that information to improve their treatment,” said Dr. Beal. 

“Right now, our scientists are missing out on opportunities to include brain imaging as part of their studies. They could really learn how the brain is changing and growing,” he added.

They can monitor how the brain changes over a child’s development, how it changes after it’s been damaged, or how it’s developing in a child who has a specific diagnosis.  

“Then they can take all of that information and leverage it to provide even more efficient and effective treatments including identifying which brain areas to target for neuromodulation,” said Dr. Beal.

Offsite MRIs cause headaches

In the meantime, when Dr. Beal needs brain images, he’s forced to send families to other Toronto hospitals for MRI images, which comes with a collection of problems. 

First, they’re often overbooked, so just getting an appointment can be tricky. Then tack on other complications like travel time and parking.  

Next, the facilities and staff of these MRIs are not designed nor trained to accommodate kids with disabilities, which can make for difficult and unpleasant scanning sessions.

“You can go through all that effort, and there’s still a chance you will be rescheduled and you have to start all over again because they are acute care hospitals,” said Dr. Beal. 

Game-changing equipment

In addition to the MRI, the Growth Strategy also includes a new Neuromodulation Discovery Hub filled with state of the art equipment that will enable Dr. Beal and other researchers to examine and map the brain like never before. 

This Hub will be the only one of its kind in Ontario to study the effects of neuromodulation on kids with disabilities. It will be a game-changer for Dr. Beal who will move up from using just two electrodes to a far more advanced neuromodulation system with 100 electrodes. 

“With just two electrodes, we don’t have as accurate a targeting system,” he said. “We know we’re targeting an area roughly, but we’re probably stimulating other brain areas around it.”  

“With a system that has improved targeting, we’re able to stimulate the brain area of interest with more accuracy which will lead to better treatment outcomes.”

The Hub will also include an Axilum Robot. Currently, Dr. Beal has to hold a paddle by hand above a child’s head for up to one hour, while asking the child to stay perfectly still. 

With the Axilum Robot, a child sits in space-age looking chair with an electronic arm with a coil that stimulates the precise area of the brain. If the child moves, the arm (and coil) immediately readjusts, targeting stimulation more effectively.  

With so much potential, so many opportunities to enhance treatment, and the chance to advance speech therapy, securing an MRI and a new Neuromodulation Discovery Hub for Dr. Beal and other Holland Bloorview researchers really is a no-brainer.