Dr. Bryan Kolb (LLD ’15), one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, has been recognized for his work to increase understanding of the brain and brain development.
He is one of 100 people appointed to the Order of Canada by Gov. Gen. David Johnston on Dec. 30 and named an Officer of the Order of Canada.
“My first reaction is to be pretty overwhelmed because there’s a whole team of us here and what sets you apart is really not obvious to you. It’s pretty special, obviously. Not very many academics are awarded these things,” says Kolb.
Kolb will receive his Officer of the Order of Canada at a ceremony to be held early this year. The Order of Canada was established in 1967 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to recognize outstanding achievement, community dedication and service to the nation.
While his first response to the news was disbelief, his second was to wonder why he had been selected, given the expertise of other team members at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN). Kolb joined the University of Lethbridge in 1976 and is a professor of neuroscience and one of the founders, along with his friend of 50 years, Dr. Ian Whishaw (DSc ’08), of the CCBN. Kolb has built an impressive set of credentials since then, including publishing six books and writing more than 400 articles and chapters about his areas of expertise. He and Whishaw have written two textbooks, the first of which is now in its seventh edition (Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology) and the second of which is now in its fifth edition (Introduction to Brain and Behaviour).
“One of the things we did when I first came here was to write a book. I had this idea that we needed a book on how the human brain worked because there wasn’t one and I had invented a course (Human Neuropsychology) that needed a book. Whishaw initially thought we were crazy. I said this was a good thing to do and convinced him that we would not get rich but maybe famous! We had a lot of trouble getting it published because publishers said there was no such field so therefore no such course and thus, no such book. Anyway, at the end of the day, it was published by Freeman & Co and now it’s in its seventh edition and it’s in many languages and is used all over the world. So, I think that sort of started things off and changed the way we thought about our research as to how it related to the human brain rather than studying the rat brain for the rat brain. We don’t really care much about how the rat brain works except that it tells us something about ours,” he says.
Kolb’s primary interests are in brain development, brain plasticity, and brain changes over time, including after injury. These areas of inquiry gained a foothold with the public and Kolb has been asked to speak at both scientific and public gatherings across the globe. One of his most memorable talks was at a public lecture in Lac La Biche where many First Nations elders were in attendance. Kolb spoke about how stress and abuse in childhood can lead to epigenetic changes in the brain, which refers to the processes whereby certain genes are turned off or on. These epigenetic changes can be passed from one generation to another, altering the brain and behaviour of the offspring.
“One elder said ‘You’ve just given us an explanation for the problem of residential schools. Why hasn’t anybody told us that before? This makes everything different.’ I think that was the most stunning reaction I’ve received,” says Kolb.
Animal research by Kolb and colleague Dr. Robbin Gibb and their students has shown that fathers’ experiences before conception and mothers’ experiences while pregnant can change the brains of their offspring and those of subsequent generations.
“That gives us an explanation for how severe stress, for example in residential schools, could cross generations and cause all kinds of problems later. Now that we know this, we recognize a cause of the residential school effect. It’s not that that these are faulty people or losers or anything of the sort. It has a biological explanation. So how can we change this? I think the place to start is recognizing why it’s happening,” says Kolb.
Kolb’s studies with Gibb using rats have shown that tactile stimulation has the power to change the brain. Baby rats with a brain injury were stroked with a brush for 15 minutes three times a day. The skin and brain come from the same germ cell during development so the stimulation of the brush stroking the skin increased the production of chemicals which cross into the brain and had a healing effect. They have shown this to be effective in treating perinatal brain injury and believe that it could have similar benefits in treating effects of early stress and trauma.
“It’s simple-minded but it seems to be working in our lab studies and it makes sense,” says Kolb.
Kolb first became interested in the brain when he was an undergraduate student studying at the University of Calgary. The field of neuroscience did not really exist yet so he was able to get into it from the beginning.
“I tell the students that until they understand what the questions about the brain are, they can’t even possibly understand what the answers are. As a student, it had never occurred to me that there was a question as to how we appreciate music. Once you understand what the question is, you say ‘How is it that we appreciate music? Why do we like music?’ And then you realize it’s got something to do with the brain. Once you start going down the ask-a-question route, you get more and more sucked in to the big picture as to how this is working and why we are the way we are. I just kept at it and kept asking questions,” says Kolb.
Kolb obtained bachelor and master degrees at the University of Calgary and a doctorate at Pennsylvania State University. He completed two post-doctoral fellowships before joining the U of L.
A special celebration in honour of Kolb's appointment will take place on Wednesday, May 31, 2017 at 4 p.m. in the Markin Hall Atrium.