Matt Holahan operates on a tight schedule, because even while on a teaching sabbatical, this neuroscientist seems to have no shortage of things to do. One of his graduate-level researchers, who is wrapping up her thesis, stopped by his office to get a few questions answered.
She was late for their appointment, so she only had nine minutes to talk. She’s been examining accuracy of spatial memory tests in Holahan’s lab, and thinks she’s settled on her conclusions. She wants to present in November and is trying to pick a date.
He reminds her of the two-week review process, and shows her early feedback from his colleagues that he’s collected on his own time. He suggests a few changes to make before they set a date and she’s out the door in 10 minutes.
In a regular year, Holahan spends most of his time in the lab at work collaborating with his students on their final projects, but this year is different. It’s his seventh year at Carleton University and his first sabbatical to engage in community outreach and pursue his own research.
He’s looking at the effect of concussions at critical brain development periods in children. He’s been interested in the topic since the media discovered the seriousness of Sidney Crosby’s hockey head injury.
He will test animals to see how they recover from concussions received at various points in their development. From that, Holahan hopes to be able pinpoint neurological signs that damage has been done to the brain.With only current understanding, it is very difficult to tell whether someone has fully recovered from a concussion.
He says his research may affect the policy of return-to-play guidelines for contact sports. It could help develop a medical test that will judge when a child is fully recovered from head trauma.
However, Holahan has more than a clinical interest in concussions. He’s a Senators fan and helps coach his son’s hockey team.
His son is seven and Holahan knows that that is a critical age for the brain because his past research has focused on brain development. He deciphered the brain’s distinct growth periods, and has attempted to model these brain events in rats.
He equated the time of brain growth spurts in humans to rats, who live only two years. For example the major brain developments that occur at kindergarten age in humans happen at around 19 days of age in rats.
Notably, if the first round of results in his concussion research are significant he’s gearing up for his first foray into human test subjects. With the community interest in concussion-prevention he is going to try fundraising. He wants to purchase equipment that will test a person’s electrical brain activity while they navigate a virtual reality maze.
Until then, he stresses that his entire experiment has been vetted by an animal ethics committee and he not just hitting rats over the head. The rats will be lightly anesthetized and feel no pain, unlike the people clobbered in a hockey game.
So after months of preparation and review, Holahan started work in the lab in October. His office is piled with background studies on concussions, and his screen saver is a flickering image of branched brain dendrites. A poster of Salvador Dali’s Clocks demonstrates his interest in the formation of memory.
Originally, it was the study of memory that brought Holahan to Canada. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Holahan applied to do his graduate degree under a memory specialist at McGill University, but while in Montreal, he met his future wife and followed her to Ottawa.
His wife is a clinical psychologist at the children’s hospital in Ottawa and she introduced him to the pediatric neurologist that he will be partnering with on his concussion research.
The couple has three children and live a twenty-minute bike ride to Carleton. A commute, which Holahan has been doing less of since he doesn’t have to be on campus to teach. He enjoys teaching though.
His favourite class is the biological basis of behaviour because it’s students’ first introduction to the wonders of the brain. He likes to think that he wins over a few psychology students to neuroscience with his demonstrations. Last year, he juggled balls while lecturing to show the brain’s capacity for multi-tasking. This year he’s juggling the role of scientist and concussion educator in the community.