OTTAWA — It was a devastating car crash that marked the start of the spiral downward for Ottawa businessman Tony Graham. He had been turning off the highway onto an exit toward home when he struck a car that was stopped by the side of the road. A passenger in the car was killed.

To his family, Graham’s subsequent behavioural changes were worrisome and confusing until, nearly a year later, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease started to make sense of them. That was four years ago. Today, 80-year-old Graham receives 24-hour nursing care in a specially built addition to the family’s home and is, according to his wife Elizabeth, in the final stages of the disease.

This week Graham’s wife and the company they built together — the Tony Graham Automotive Group, whose vice-president is their daughter, Maureen — jointly donated $1 million to help purchase a revolutionary piece of equipment for the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre that could make the agonizing wait for that diagnosis quicker for other families. Five hundred thousand dollars of the donation was privately donated by Elizabeth Graham and the company matched that amount.

The decision to do so, Elizabeth and Maureen Graham said Wednesday, was easy once they realized the implications of the positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology for patients and their families.

“It was very difficult at the beginning,” said Elizabeth. “If I would have been able to take him to be diagnosed or use a machine to help diagnose what was happening, it would have cut out a lot of heartbreak.”

The PET/MRI scanner is a relatively new and rapidly developing hybrid imaging technology that combines the MRI’s soft-tissue imaging with a PET scan’s imaging of metabolism and tracking of uniquely labelled cell types or cell receptors.

The result, said Zul Merali, president and CEO of the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, is a window into the brain. “This technology actually lets you peer into the brain.”

Until now, mental health diagnoses largely relied on a diagnosis of the symptoms. The PET/MRI scanner, Merali said, allows physicians to see brain malfunctions that contribute to illness such as Alzheimer’s disease and post traumatic stress disorder.

Previously, Alzheimer’s could only be positively diagnosed through an autopsy. The PET/MRI scanner, he said, can pick up “plaques and tangles” that are telltale signs of Alzheimer. Combined with clinical diagnosis, physicians and patients could learn very early on whether they had the disease, “so that people would get much better prepared for what is coming down the road,” he said.

The scanner’s potential for diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder is also game-changing, especially at a time when so many members of the military and others are being diagnosed with it. The technology has the potential to determine suicidal ideation, which would make it a powerful tool in better understanding and preventing suicide.

The scanner has been on the Royal’s wish list for some time. A purpose-built room was constructed for the technology when the hospital was renovated. Now it is close to placing an order for the $6.4-million piece of technology (plus another $3 million for installation). The donation from the Graham family has been a major step in realization of the goal.

Merali said he expects to order the equipment within three months. Delivery and installation could take up to a year and a half after that.

Merali predicts the Royal will become a centre of excellence for brain research in Canada and North America once the equipment is in place. It would become one of only two health centres in Canada to have the technology and one of only a dozen in the world. The other Canadian scanner, located in London, Ont., is largely dedicated to diagnosing cancer, Merali said.

The technology is a major step toward drawing a roadmap of how the brain works, Merali said. And that understanding is key to not only better treatment, but an eventual cure for diseases of the brain.

“In terms of research, we need to understand the language of the brain, to understand how the circuits connect, and then when we understand why something is going wrong, we can fix it.”
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