Spotlight: Antonio Strafella MD, FRCPC
By: Nancy Butcher
Dr. Antonio Strafella is a successful clinician-scientist within the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) and a Canada Research Chair in Movement Disorders and Neuroimaging. Strafella is a neurologist at the Toronto Western Hospital, an associate professor in the IMS, and a senior scientist in the Division of Brain Imaging and Behaviour Systems—Neuroscience at the Toronto Western Research Institute and the Research Imaging Centre at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Strafella uses his interactions with patients to drive new research questions, maintaining an research laboratory that uses cutting edge neuroimaging techniques to study Parkinson’s disease. He is internationally recognized for his work on the cognitive and behavioural symptoms of Parkinson’s disease—symptoms that Strafella points out “remain largely untreatable and can reduce a patient’s functioning and quality of life sometimes even more than the motor symptoms of the disease.”
Strafella traces his interest in Parkinson’s disease back to his days as a medical student at the University of Bologna, in Italy. He was immediately drawn to the study of movement disorders, completing his residency in neurology and a PhD on the neurophysiology of motor control. A fellowship at the UofT with Dr. Peter Ashby marked the beginning of his successful career in Canada. “I was only planning on staying in Canada for the one year fellowship,” reflects Dr. Strafella, “but it was a great time to enter the field with the advancement of deep brain stimulation as a new treatment for Parkinson’s disease.” As a post-doctoral fellow and assistant professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, he expanded into positron emission tomography, a method that now forms a critical component of his research studies.
Strafella maintains an active research program, supervising IMS graduate students and post-doctoral fellows that come from around the world to work with him. He closely mentors his students, saying that he “learns just as much from his students as they do from [him].” Current research projects in his group range from the investigation of cognitive impairments and impulse control disorders in Parkinson’s disease to microglial activation and neurological structural and functional connectivity in Parkinson’s patients.
As a researcher in a competitive field that is constantly advancing, Strafella is always thinking about the next way he can use neuroimaging to expand our understanding of Parkinson’s disease. To young researchers beginning their academic careers, he says, “You have to be aware that what you are working on now will likely be outdated in five years, and to come up with new ways to tackle new problems requires thinking outside the box.” This approach has not been lost on international funding agencies—Strafella’s innovative research ideas are funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Parkinson Society of Canada, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation, to name a few.
Strafella anticipates that there will be major advances in Parkinson’s disease research within the next few years, as new radioligands are developed to better visualize early changes in the brain. “The key with imaging will be the ability to identify patients in the very early stages of the disease before symptoms appear, to facilitate treatment of cognitive changes that happen in the later stages of Parkinson’s disease.” With IMS researchers like Strafella at the helm, these critical advances may very well begin at UofT.