McGill, Oxford cement historic neuroscience research partnership

The McGill-Oxford partnership will help unlock the mysteries of the human brain.
The McGill-Oxford partnership will help unlock the mysteries of the human brain.

By Neale McDevitt

It is a partnership that could redefine the term “brain trust.”

Already among the world’s most prestigious institutes of higher learning and centres for neuroscience research, McGill University and the University of Oxford have formed an historic collaboration that promises to expand our understanding of the human brain and vault research to exciting new heights.

Collaborations in training and research in neuroscience will be backed by competitive peer-reviewed funding and significant philanthropic support and will provide the opportunity for graduate-student exchanges and cross-appointments with visiting professors at Oxford and adjunct professors at McGill. This new partnership will encourage joint research grant applications in support of the research collaboration and create a dynamic framework for regular academic exchanges between the two universities.

Richard Levin, Dean of Medicine, kicked off the July 3 ceremonies to announce the partnership with a brief history lesson. “Around 4,000 BC we find the first entry in the field of neuroscience when the description of the euphoric effect of the poppy plant was recorded in Sumerian records,” Levin told the audience gathered at the new Francesco Bellini Life Sciences Building. “And so began the quest to understand the human brain.”

Calling Oxford a “powerhouse at every level” in the field of neuroscience, Levin went on to outline the important links between Oxford and McGill, highlighting Dr. Wilder Penfield’s Rhodes scholarship in 1915. While at Oxford, Penfield came to see the brain and the nervous system was akin to an “unexplored and undiscovered country.” Penfield was so inspired he founded the world-renowned Montreal Neurological Institute in 1934.

Next up, Dr. Christopher Kennard, Head of the Department of Clinical Neurology at Oxford, admitted how “tremendously exciting” the partnership was, bringing together more than 1,000 faculty, researchers and Masters and PhD students in the neurosciences. Rather than starting from zero, however, Kennard said the long-standing history of partnerships in neuroscience research between the two schools will prove to be a strong foundation upon which to build. “At all levels of research in the neurosciences there is great potential for new collaboration [between our universities] in areas as diverse as neural circuits, neurodegeneration… neuropsychiatric disorders and neuromuscular diseases.”

No one was more visibly thrilled than new McGill Chancellor Arnold Steinberg, who was singled out by McGill Principal Heather Munro-Blum for his leadership and vital financial support of the partnership. “It’s just my second day as Chancellor,” he told the audience with a broad smile. “And what a joy it is to start off with the collaboration between Oxford and McGill… I was so honoured to be asked to play a part in bringing about this partnership.”

“When I heard that McGill was looking for start-up funding to enable this to go ahead, I asked what I could do to get on board… I am grateful beyond measure to have a chance to help in this partnership.”

As with Dr. Kennard, McGill’s Principal Heather Munroe-Blum lauded the strong link between the Universities that has been forged through various important collaborative research initiatives in the past. But, she said, the formalization of this partnership will only make this relationship more productive. “We want to move beyond the incremental and contribute to the world at the highest level,” said Munroe-Blum. “This partnership is just fuel in the pipeline.”

McGill has long been known as a leader in neurosciences research and has taken this field as one of its top institutional priorities, building on the distinguished history and current strengths of its Montreal Neurological Institute and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute. More than 200 McGill faculty across a range of disciplines focus teaching and research activities on areas directly related to neuroscience. McGill’s integrated program in neurosciences is one of the largest contemporary neuroscience graduate programs in North America. There are nearly 270 Masters and PhD students registered in the program at present and more than 100 graduate students registered in Basic Sciences departments across the campus. Research, conducted in laboratories throughout the greater Montreal area and on campus, covers such thematic areas as molecular, cellular, systems, behavioural and cognitive neuroscience.

Oxford University’s world-class research in neurosciences provides opportunities for leading researchers and clinicians to show how individual neurons acquire their specific properties and assemble into complex interactive circuits, how defects in these circuits lead to neurological and psychiatric illness, and perhaps even how brains generate consciousness. More than 130 principal investigators at Oxford are involved in neuroscience research and their groups include approximately 250 research assistants and more than 200 postgraduate research students. Oxford’s strengths in preclinical studies are coupled with rapidly expanding clinical research and translational medicine, where the aim is to take new treatments from the bench to the bedside. This means research spans every level, from molecules and cells, through cognitive science and the genetic basis of common diseases, to the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders and the prevention and management of stroke. The Centre for Functional MRI for the Brain also offers the latest developments in brain imaging.