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About the Institute

Profile of Carter Snead

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Dr. Carter Snead

Dr. Carter Snead, MD, FRCP(C)

  • Senior Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health
  • Division Head, Neurology
  • Director, Centre for Brain & Behaviour
  • Professor, Departments of Medicine, Paediatrics and Pharmacology. University of Toronto
  • Bloorview Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair, Paediatric Neuroscience

1. Where are you from? /Where did you study?
I’m from West Virginia and I completed a pharmacy degree and a medical degree at the University of West Virginia. I did my paediatric fellowship and residency at Duke University and a paediatric neurology residency at Yale. Then I served in the United States Air Force for two years where I was a paediatric neurologist at the Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. After that, I took my first academic position at the University of Alabama and was there for about thirteen years before becoming the head of neurology at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in 1989. I held that position and a faculty position at the University of Southern California until I came to SickKids in 1996.

2. What are you researching right now?
I have two broad lines of research. My clinical research uses magnetoencephalography (MEG), a brain mapping technique, to identify children who might be candidates for epilepsy surgery and looks at the outcomes of surgery in those children. I also have basic research, done in the laboratory, where we deal primarily with models of epilepsy that occur in children and look at basic biochemical and molecular mechanisms of seizures in those models.    

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I trained with Dr. Peter Huttenlocher at Yale. He was a role model to me, a superb clinician in every way, an excellent teacher and a brilliant scientist. He made quantum leaps in logic and took really innovative and novel ideas to the laboratory and then made groundbreaking observations and let others fill in the details. For example he was among the earliest people to understand the importance of the growth of nerve cells in the brain relative to cognition impairment and intellectual disability in children. Of all scientists, he is the one I admired the most.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
I think right now there are two breakthroughs that are going to have enormous ramifications for the neurosciences. The first is epigenetics, which is an alteration of genetic function without really affecting the DNA or the genome itself. It alters the physical properties of DNA. The phenomenon of epigenetics goes a long way towards explaining or linking the nurture vs. nature argument. The nurture vs. nature argument is that we are all endowed with a set of genes that we inherit and that set of genes, our genome, determines who and what we are and how we act and what we think. However, that set of genes is influenced profoundly by our environment. The connection between the environment and the genome is mediated by epigenetics and we’re just beginning to understand that and it’s hugely important.

The other breakthrough, which is even newer, is called neuronal connectivity. It uses really sophisticated mathematical analyses of imaging, of EEG and of MEG, to define precise neuronal circuitry in the brain. The whole idea is that if you can define exactly what neuronal connections do in a normal and abnormal brain then you can target the abnormal connections either surgically or with medications rather than doing what we do now, which is giving drugs that have tremendous side effects because they are not specific for just the abnormal part of the brain. I think that has enormous ramifications for neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry. The future is connectivity research. There is a huge project going on in the United States, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), called the Human Connectome Project and it is pursuing this avenue of research. Through this project, researchers are working to define neuronal circuitry in the brain both anatomically and functionally.                 

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I like blue grass music and opera – so I have very eclectic tastes in music. I like history of all sorts, I also like poetry and I’m really interested in film.

6. Why science?
I chose science because of the intellectual challenge. My original plan was to get a PhD and be a pharmacologist, investigating the actions of drugs. Then I decided that I would be a scientist interested in pharmacology and also be a physician. In the end, that is pretty much what I’ve done. I’m a neuroscientist and a clinician and a lot of my science deals with the mechanism and action of drugs and the brain. I think that being a clinician-scientist gives you the best of all possible worlds even though it makes for a busy life filled with patient demands on top of your science. In a lot of ways, the science is harder because you rarely get the results you were hoping for. However, being a clinician-scientist allows you to bring clinical insight to your science that you otherwise wouldn’t have and sense the direction to make your science more applicable to the human biological condition. Being a scientist makes you a much better teacher because you can bring the frontiers of a scientist to the bedside.       

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids offered me the opportunity to build the best paediatric epilepsy program in the world. They also offered me the opportunity to build a superb paediatric neurology division with a tremendous depth and breadth of subspecialty interest. There is a milieu here of science and medicine which is unique. Everyone is collegial and cooperative and there are enormous opportunities for multidisciplinary and inter-disciplinary collaborations.     

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
In epilepsy the controversial question is where the abnormality lies. In the past we’ve always focused on the seizure and I think more and more we’re coming to understand that there is a cascade of events that antedate the seizure that need to be attacked in order to alleviate epilepsy.

More broadly, I think the whole concept of environmental enrichment is a controversial one. I feel very strongly that environmental enrichment has an enormous impact on neuronal function through epigenetics. I think there is a lot of controversy over whether the animal research and the environmental enrichment are in any way, shape or form applicable to the human condition. The question is how to standardize environmental enrichment to show a beneficial effect clinically.  

9. What are you reading right now?
I am reading a book on the history of the war of 1812. It’s a part of American history that I’m not too familiar with and it’s really intriguing to read since a lot of it happened in Ontario. I’m also reading a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems. 

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
It is important to think carefully and focus on a single research question. You need to find a really good mentor who is going to spend time with you and teach you how to do research.

11. What does the Research & Learning Tower mean to you?
It means a lot to me because I just got a new five year grant, so my lab will be moving over to The Research & Learning Tower. It also means something to me as head of the Centre for Brain & Behaviour because as we evolve as a centre we’re evolving in all sorts of directions, directions I would never have predicted. One of those directions is knowledge exchange and knowledge transfer. If we continue to evolve in that direction we’re going to have to have a close, productive, working collaboration with the Learning Institute and that will be enabled greatly in the new Tower. In conjunction with the Learning Institute, we need to start to think in a very innovative and forward way about the development of scientific social networking because that’s where the action is going to be in the next five years. We need to start thinking about web building for science. In order to do that in an organized way, we have to develop tools to really measure the impact and utilization.  

12. The SickKids Centre for Brain & Behaviour is hosting a conference on paediatric Brain Injury later this summer. Why is this conference so important?
The 2nd Biennial International Conference on Brain Injury in Children is the only conference devoted exclusively to the full range of paediatric brain injury types and it will provide a unique vehicle to develop multidisciplinary strategies for research and treatment in childhood brain injury.  

The only way to understand the pathogenesis and natural history of childhood brain injury and its co-morbidities is to develop coherent multidisciplinary approaches to this problem in therapeutic and research domains. Novel interventions can be developed to target both the biological genesis and the psychosocial co-morbidity of brain injury in children. Through this conference, the SickKids Centre for Brain & Behaviour is driving the cross talks amongst researchers and clinicians in the various subspecialties within the neurosciences.

The conference supports the SickKids Centre for Brain & Behaviour’s strategic goals of engaging in global opportunities to enhance child health, build capacity and to build strategic partnerships and pursue opportunities to collaborate both internally and externally in the paediatric neurosciences. 

July 2011  

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