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Sandra Black

Professor of Medicine (Neurology), Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre
Director, Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program at Sunnybrook Research Institute
Site Director of the Heart and Stroke Foundation Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery
Executive Director of the Toronto Dementia Research Alliance

Years Active in the IMS: 1991 - Present

Since I joined the IMS in 1991, I have served as a primary supervisor for 8 MSc and 12 PhD students and as co-supervisor for 4 PhD and 6 MSc students. I have also trained 41 post-doctoral fellows and numerous undergraduate and medical students over the years, helping to launch more than 100 academic careers.

As an internationally recognized cognitive and stroke neurologist, I pioneered a paradigm shift toward recognizing that interactions of Small Vessel Disease and Protein Misfolding disorders (most notably Alzheimer’s Disease) are important mechanisms driving brain aging and neurodegeneration. With dual credibility, I have helped to put Cognition, Behavior and Small Vessel Disease on the agenda of Stroke Care and Recovery, and Vascular Contributions to Dementia on the agenda of Dementia Research and Care. As an active clinical trialist, I have participated in 70 intervention trials in stroke and dementia over the last three decades. Recently, I have been a co-PI exploring a disruptive technology, low field Focused Ultrasound, which can deliver large molecules and other biological agents across the blood-brain barrier in a controlled fashion. The eventual goal is to more effectively target key target pathologies that lead to dementia.

I have had continuous research funding since 1986, including a CIHR-funded grant to conduct the Sunnybrook Dementia Study since 1995, which has accrued more than 1500 well-studied participants in a model of research embedded in care. It has yielded more than 200 publications, 60% with trainees as the first author. I have utilized quantitative neuroimaging to study brain-behavior relationships, publishing over 500 papers (Google Scholar HI 103; more than 41 000 citations). My recent focus is on inter-relationships of Alzheimer’s and silent stroke disease (including under-recognized venular disease), utilizing MRI and PET imaging, genetic and proteomic biomarkers in correlation with cognitive, function and behavioral measures.

One of my most treasured recognitions is the inaugural IMS Mel Silverman Mentorship award in 2001 for “outstanding service as a mentor and role model to graduate students”. In 2009, I received the U of T Department of Medicine award for mentorship to new faculty members and in 2011, the Sibbald Mentorship Award by Sunnybrook’s Department of Medicine.

I was named to the Order of Ontario in 2011 and elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2012. In 2015 I received the U of T Faculty of Medicine Dean’s Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award. In the same year, I was appointed Officer in the Order of Canada for my contributions to Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and vascular dementia. In 2018, I am very pleased to be receiving an honorary degree from University of Waterloo.

Over the last quarter century, I have had the privilege of supervising many brilliant  IMS students from whom I have learned so much! I delight in seeing them develop, mature and take leadership roles as clinician-scientists, investigators, and teachers; for example, Richard Swartz, David Gladstone, Pearl Behl, Mario Masellis and Mark Boulos hold faculty positions at U of T, David Callen at McMaster, Jennifer Mandzia at Western University and Brian Buck at U of Alberta. Richard Swartz and Mario Masellis now co-lead the Ontario Brain Institute’s Ontario Neurodegeneration Research Initiative.

As MD/PhD students, Richard Swartz, Graeme Schwindt, and Sean Nestor contributed novel insights on specific relationships of brain atrophy, Small Vessel Disease (SVD) and cognitive functions in aging, and dementia; on cholinergic agents and brain network functioning; and on SVD and cortical/subcortical network integrity. Mario Masellis illuminated genetics of Frontotemporal Dementia and pharmacogenetics of Parkinson’s disease. Joel Ramirez has developed reliable imaging pipelines for quantification of atrophy and SVD subtypes across dementias, discerning relationships with memory and executive function. Benkamin Lam elucidated phenotypic mimicry in the genetic AD and critiqued currently conflicting diagnostic criteria for the AD.

Neelesh Nadkarni, Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburg, leads innovative research on amyloid imaging, white matter disease, gait, and balance. Kagan, a speech-scientist, and Director of Toronto’s Aphasia Institute developed an important methodology for supported conversation in patients with aphasia and other communication disorders, empowering participation in citizenship activities and in personal decision making. She is now an internationally recognized leader in the field of functional communication.

A source of great joy to me is being taught by my students as they discover their passions and pursue their research goals. It is a pleasure to watch them blossom in their individual careers continuing the tradition of mentorship and training of next-generation investigators. The IMS has provided us with an opportunity for interdisciplinary research, which was essential when we embarked on a journey to combine brain imaging, clinical care, neuropsychology, and genetics to better understand heterogeneous phenotypes and comorbidities in stroke and dementia. Our ultimate goal is personalized precision therapeutics, accelerated by the development of in vivo biomarkers that signal high risk in the presymptomatic stage of dementia and makes it potentially preventable.

Vigorous research training to acquire necessary skills through strategically chosen coursework with the opportunity to focus on thesis research has been key to the success of the IMS over the last half-century. I heartily congratulate the IMS for its 50 years of excellence in training generations of clinician scientists and investigators who will continue to drive the discovery agenda forward across all the pillars of research, conquering diseases on many fronts and enabling longer lives with better quality for future generations in the next five decades.