York researchers are leading the way in discovery and innovation, with achievements as diverse as developing the instrument that detected snow falling from clouds on Mars, discovering a brainstem centre that controls head orientation and promises new treatments for movement disorders, and creating an app that decreases brain decline in those with Alzheimer’s.
Snow falling from clouds on Mars
York University Professor Jim Whiteway led a team of Canadian scientists in discovering snow falling from Martian clouds. The observations were made with an instrument called the LIDAR on the spacecraft for the NASA Phoenix mission that landed on Mars in 2008. The LIDAR instrument was based on the development of laser remote sensing within Prof. Whiteway’s laboratory at York University. It emitted pulses of laser light into the Martian sky, measuring dust and clouds composed of water ice. The clouds were observed to have streaks extending toward the ground. That view was immediately familiar to Prof. Whiteway since LIDAR measurements of precipitation look the same on Earth.
The Phoenix mission is finished, but the work continues in an environmental chamber that simulates the conditions on the surface of Mars. The next generation of the Mars LIDAR will be directed at the surface of Mars to detect the deposition of water and this is being tested in the Mars Chamber. Scientific progress is already being made with the finding that water can condense out of the atmosphere onto salts on the surface of Mars.
The instrument development for the next Mars LIDAR will continue toward the goal of obtaining the measurements again on the real surface of Mars. In the meantime Prof. Whiteway’s research group spend their time applying similar laser instruments for field measurements on the Earth. The studies include chemistry over sea ice, high level outflow clouds from tropical thunderstorms, particles from volcanic eruptions in the stratosphere, desert dust, forest fires, and pollution from industry.
Treatments for movement disorders
Doug Crawford, Distinguished Research Professor in Neuroscience and Canada Research Chair in Visuomotor Neuroscience, has made a string of spectacular discoveries since joining York’s Centre for Vision Research more than 20 years ago. As a student, he already discovered the area of the brain that controls three-dimensional eye orientation, and causes a neurological condition called gaze-paretic nystagmus when damaged (Science 1991). Later his own lab showed that the same midbrain area also controls head orientation, and that imbalanced midbrain activity produces a head disorder called torticollis (Science 2002). In a separate series of experiments the Crawford lab showed that parietal cortex re-calculates remembered reach goals every time the eyes move (Journal of Neuroscience 2003) and that this mechanism fails when parietal cortex is damaged (Nature Neuroscience 2005). Most recently, they showed that different brain areas code reach locations relative to other visual landmarks (Journal of Neuroscience 2014), and that neural activity for a remembered object location travels across internal visual maps within the brain when the eyes track slowly across a visual scene (Current Biology 2015). These discoveries have important applications both for building machines with human-like visual capabilities, and for clinicians to design optimal behavioral therapies for brain-damaged patients, who often show preservation of some brain mechanisms when the other mechanisms are damaged. Read more.
Decreased brain decline in those with Alzheimer’s
Dr. Lauren Sergio has developed an easy to use technology that enables a caregiver or healthcare professional to quickly determine whether a patient is experiencing functional problems related to early/pre-stage dementia & Alzheimer’s disease and concussion recovery.
Compared to neurocognitive assessments, Dr. Sergio has developed an easy to use interface that enables the user to execute a series of neurocognitive movement tasks. The tool has been used by the NHL, CFL and a number of university sports teams, as well as amateur sports team in the Toronto area. Innovation York partnered with Dr. Sergio to commercialize this technology. Read more.