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April 2015

Taking the fast track to brain health

At a glance
The challenge

Diagnosing cognitive decline in seniors requires lengthy testing from ill-equipped family doctors

The solution

New assessment tools that are faster for doctors to use

The outcome

Patients get support much more quickly

What's next?

Shawnda is hired to continue research on cognitive testing practices in Canada

As Canada’s population ages, more people are placing a greater emphasis on keeping their minds and brains healthy. But detailed assessments of cognitive health are typically very lengthy, and waitlists to see specialists are long, forcing patients to wait as cases pile up. However, thanks to the research of Mitacs Elevate postdoc Shawnda Lanting, doctors may soon be able to radically reduce this backlog.

After doing her PhD at the University of Saskatchewan and returning to her home province of BC for a residency, Shawnda had a growing concern about how testing for mental illness and cognitive impairment was being done.

Currently, people have to go through lengthy tests of their concentration, learning, memory, reasoning, language, and other skills. Through Elevate, Shawnda began a two-year fellowship with Copeman Healthcare Centre, researching how much this process could be streamlined while maintaining its reliability.

“Previous researchers have designed assessment tools that are brief, streamlined, and easy to administer,” says Shawnda.

I studied these newer tools in comparison to the standard methods, and found that the assessment time could be reduced from two days per person to 30 minutes or less. Moreover, the results from the streamlined assessments are just as good as those from longer tests. This newer, faster way of testing can be used for people with psychological or cognitive health problems, as well as with patients who are just coming in for a general wellness check-up. Since the testing is so much shorter, it’s easier for doctors to administer, less stressful on patients, and will mean faster access to care.”

Copeman’s Director of Brain Health and Psychological Health, Elisabeth Sherman, says Shawnda’s research will have far-reaching implications.

“Family doctors are traditionally the first ones to see patients with mental health and neurological problems, but they have the least access to testing tools. That’s why we see backlogs when patients are referred to specialists for assessment. But with these new, shorter tests that are easier to administer, family doctors will have access to a quick snapshot of what a patient’s mental or cognitive health is like, allowing them to provide support and get into prevention a lot earlier.”

“Being more efficient, and being able to assess more people more rapidly will improve how we track mental and cognitive health issues in Canada,” says Shawnda,

After completing her fellowship, Shawnda was hired by Copeman Healthcare Centre, allowing her to continue her research as she helps patients.

Mitacs gratefully acknowledges Western Economic Diversification, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and the governments of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and New Brunswick for their support of Mitacs Elevate. In addition, select Elevate fellows are supported through Mitacs Accelerate and its funding partners.