Dr. Christian Beaulieu

Professor, University of Alberta

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Dr. Christian Beaulieu is Professor of Radiology and Diagnostic Imaging & Biomedical Engineering at the University of Alberta since 1999, Scientific Director of the Peter S Allen Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Research Centre since 2009, and currently a Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) on MRI of Brain Microstructure. His education includes a BSc in Physical Chemistry at the University of Manitoba, a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Alberta, and a postdoctoral fellowship in Radiology at Stanford University. He has a long history of research in MRI since 1990 (~6 years after clinical MRI were first in Canada), with his entire academic research career in Edmonton funded by competitive salary awards from Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research (Alberta Innovates Health Solutions) from 2000-16, Medical Research Council of Canada from 2000-05 and Canada Research Chair Tier 1 from 2016-30.

For his research on diffusion MRI of the nervous system, he has been elected as a Fellow of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine and American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering. The underlying theme is the development of new quantitative MRI methods that overcome the limitations of current clinical MRI methods, and to create more informative brain images that better detect and characterize changes in tissue (usually brain) associated with disability when applied to patients with various clinical disorders, such as multiple sclerosis (MS). The goal is to improve the MRI methods so that brain regions and abnormalities can be investigated that have not been well studied before. These new capabilities may then identify key aspects of disease previously not known. 

Learn more about Dr. Beaulieu

What is the focus of your research? How did you become interested in MS research?

My main focus of research is on MRI, first on technical development to make it better and second on using it to study various clinical disorders. I have always had an interest in the formation of myelin (myelination) that surrounds nerve fibres in the nervous system, dating back to my PhD here in Edmonton in the early 1990s where I was performing fundamental diffusion MRI experiments on myelinated and non-myelinated nerves to determine how myelin affected (or did not) water diffusion measurements in the nervous system. I had read about MS during my PhD studies, but the main emerging clinical application for diffusion MRI was acute stroke which was where my research focused for many years including my postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford and my initial faculty position. Even 25 years later, advanced MRI of acute stroke is still a major emphasis in my lab.

However, Edmonton is a hot spot for MS and over the years I saw the innovative quantitative MRI research by my colleague Dr. Alan Wilman. It was apparent that many of the MRI methods we had expertise in were not being applied to MS in the literature, and we thought that they could provide insight into brain regions otherwise not studied particularly well. Also, bringing tools developed from one disease application to another provides a fresh approach. However, just wanting to study a disorder is insufficient; as an MRI scientist I don’t have access to people with lived experience. Fortunately, the University of Alberta MS Clinic had neurologists (Drs. Fabrizio Giuliani, Penny Smyth, Gregg Blevins, and Colin Wilbur) over the years that were happy to be involved and collaborate on our proposed MRI research studies even though I had no prior experience in this disorder – everything has a beginning.

What inspires you to continue advancing research in this field?

The more I read, the more I am surprised on how little is known (OK I am not that surprised) and how evident it is that there is so much more to discover. You don’t know what you can’t measure. Tools are always getting better and this allows new questions, often pretty basic and fundamental ones, to be addressed which will lead to novel insights.

As a researcher, we can only make discoveries if we have support from community  members who participate selflessly by going in the MRI scanner and letting us take new pictures of their brain with the intent that they will help in our understanding of MS. This includes not just persons with MS of all ages, but also all the healthy people that we need to compare to those with MS. All of our participants inspire our on-going MRI research.

How do you hope to change the lives of people living with MS through your research?

MRI is a medical imaging technology that has revolutionized diagnosis and yielded insight into human diseases by providing non-invasive, quantitative pictures of the human brain. It is incredibly important for the diagnosis of MS and its monitoring over the years, but our goal is to use more advanced MRI methods to uncover fundamental aspects of the disease that are missed currently – what brain regions are affected, when are they affected, does it relate to cognitive and physical disability and treatment response, how does injury progress, etc.

What do you enjoy most about your research? What are some of the challenges you face?

For the most part, what is fun and rewarding is coming up with ideas and doing things that other people have not done yet anywhere in the world. Training students, some of whom will continue to investigate MS with MRI, is critical for the future of our research ecosystem. A lab is only as good as its team – this includes trainees as well as highly qualified staff. However, it is a challenge to recruit students as many young Canadians are not seeing research and being a university professor as a viable option as a career.

How important is the support from MS Canada in your research?

Research does not happen without funding, and as such this grant lets us now focus on three years of MS research.