2 Minutes with Chris Willie
February 5, 2013
The human brain needs tightly controlled blood flow. Too much or too little blood can cause serious problems, including a condition known as Cheyne-Stokes respiration that makes breathing regulation unstable. The condition is most pronounced among individuals with traumatic brain injuries and sometimes occurs with aging, especially in those with heart disease and strokes. Curiously, it also occurs in almost all healthy people during sleep at high altitudes.
To better understand how the body controls breathing and the crucial flow of blood to the brain, University of British Columbia doctoral student Christopher Willie is studying why healthy people develop Cheyne-Stokes respiration at high altitudes.
I study blood flow to the brain. Specifically I'm interested in how blood flow in your brain is directed to specific regions. For example, your brain stem regulates breathing, heart rate and other autonomic functions like that. I'm interested in how those regions specifically regulate the blood flow distribution. There's this fascinating phenomenon with human exposure to altitude where otherwise healthy individuals actually develop pathologies or disease states that are very similar to symptoms that we see in people with chronic heart failure, for example.
You can take these healthy people. You can bring them to high altitude and then you can study these emerging symptoms that they have. We don't exactly know how blood flow is regulated in your brain but we do know that, in general it's very, very effectively regulated.
We principally use a few different types of ultrasound. We have very high-resolution ultrasound which essentially gives us a really good image of the vessels in the neck. We can also measure blood flow within the arteries of your brain. When we expose people to high altitude, or we have them exercise, or we give them a drug in order to affect blood flow in their brain, we can look at how these specific regions of the brain, and then how these specific arteries, respond to those challenges.
My work that has to do with the brain, has to do with the arteries of the neck. Certainly they have profound implications for treatment of stroke, for treatment of say carotid stenosis where you have plaques building up on the arteries. For instance, my most recent finding that the arteries of the neck actually participate in the regulation of brain blood flow, that has major implications in people who have plaque build-up because they probably cannot regulate their brain blood flow at the level of their neck. This might explain, at least partially, why they're more susceptible to things like stroke.
The support I've received from NSERC has been phenomenal because it's allowed me to travel all over the world and work with the top scientists in their respective fields. Very early in my career I've been exposed to some of the best research, the best human physiology research, in the world. I've learned techniques that have really helped my research, but I've learned them from the people that invented them or from the people that have perfected them. That certainly wouldn't have been possible without NSERC.