Dr. Bryan Kolb feeds his horse, Teddy, on his farm in Cokato. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press

Cokato resident receives Order of Canada

Dr. Bryan Kolb has been instrumental in helping society understand what happens inside our heads

When Bryan Kolb entertained the idea of writing a book about neuroscience, everyone told him he was crazy.

Two years later, Dr. Bryan Kolb published what would become a worldwide resource about the human brain. He is now known as one of the world’s leading neuroscientists.

While in his twenties, in the late 1960s, the only ongoing brain research data was being collected from rats.

For nearly the past 50 years, Dr. Kolb has contributed to Canada’s knowledge about the human brain. On Friday, November 17, Canada gave back. During an all-day ceremony, Dr. Kolb, accompanied by his wife, Debbie, was among a few esteemed Canadians to be named an Officer of the Order of Canada at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

“You just don’t think of it as being something that will occur to you,” said Dr. Kolb. “It happens to famous people. A scientist typically isn’t a famous person except in a restricted group.”

As an undergraduate, Kolb had dreams of being a lawyer. It was during a course studying the brain that something shifted. He changed his mind, and decided to pursue a career in neuroscience.

“I have to say, my parents were skeptical that I would ever get a job doing it, because the field didn’t exist,” he said.

He was there at the beginning, growing with the study. In retrospect, Dr. Kolb considers himself like a leaf in the wind, not knowing where he was going, but having fun doing it.

Dr. Kolb, along with his partner in science, Dr. Ian Whishaw, wrote the book, Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology. Kolb was driven to write this book after starting his post-doctoral work at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

“I asked people, what do I read on the human brain? Because up to that point I had been studying lab animals,” said Kolb. “They said, there’s nothing. I said, well that’s impossible, there’s a library full of books. They said, there isn’t one.”

“I thought, well, maybe the way to learn something is to write the book,” said Dr. Kolb.

He then taught a course on how the human brain works, and upon completion, started to write the book with Dr. Whishaw.

“Everyone said we were nuts,” said Kolb. “It’s not going to work, you don’t know enough and so on. Well, we’re seven editions in, working on an eighth one, and we were right.”

In 1980, Kolb and Whishaw saw the first edition published of their text book after two years of work. Together, they have written two text books, 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]. Each have been published in seven languages. Outside of this, Dr. Kolb has produced over 400 papers on the study of the brain.

Dr. Kolb believes that society has benefitted greatly from this book and the research it contains.

“I think we now have a better appreciation of how the brain works,” he said, adding that mental illness is one of the biggest issues in modern day society.

“The second thing, is the recognition that our brain changes, like plastic. Fifty years ago, nobody would have believed that,” said Dr. Kolb. “If it can change for the bad, then it can change for the good. So the question is, how do we reverse the changes in the brain that lead to the mental illnesses.”

Part of Dr. Kolb’s research has led to a greater understanding of how the brain changes in someone who has had a stroke. Because of this, progress towards treatment has been made. Kolb’s research has also led society to rethink what mental stress does to the brain and how it could affect generations to come.

A gene is a sequence of DNA or RNA which codes for a molecule that has a function. Gene expression; the same DNA is found within every cell of your body, except for those that do not contain a nucleus.

“So why is that?” said Kolb, “It’s because most of the genes in any given cell are turned off. And only certain ones are turned on.”

This discovery led Kolb, as well as some other scientists, to discover that experiences can turn certain genes on and off. They have been able to show that stressful experiences can change the expression of the gene. And this, particularly in men, can be transferred to their offspring. Thus, children of those who experienced the terrors of residential schools are predisposed to the kind of mental health issues that their parents faced.

Dr. Kolb remembers recently speaking to an audience, among which were some Indigenous elders.

“One got up and said, are you telling me you have an explanation for residential schools? It’s not our fault? And I said, yes, that’s what I’m telling you,” said Dr. Kolb. “It’s a change in the expression of your genes, and the solution is to change them back.”

This discovery has launched a program, with the help of the Paul Martin Family Initiative, to start early prenatal care with Indigenous people around Canada. This is estimated to launch in early 2019. Although this program may have a slow start, both Kolb and Martin hope to spread it nationwide.

In 1987, Dr. Kolb moved with his wife to Fernie, and bought one of the first houses built on the ski hill.

He and his wife moved down into the valley 17 years ago. They now live on a farm in Cokato with 13 horses and their own riding arena. Even at the age of 70, Dr. Kolb has not retired. He feels he’ll give it another year or two until he’s done.

Kolb says the life he has lived has been very rewarding, and pinpointed two specific highlights.

“One is the impact this book has had,” he said, adding that he has travelled all around the world to give talks about his studies, and has met countless people who are studying the field of neuroscience through the use of his book.

The second most rewarding moment in his career was finding out that psychoactive drugs, so any drug that changes your behaviour [nicotine, methamphetamine, prescription drugs] changes the physical structure of the cells in the human brain, permanently. This is why it is so hard to quit smoking. Kolb’s studies revealed that because the physical state of the brain cell can change for the worse, this must mean that it can also change for the good.

“The idea is, we can change these things back,” he said.

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Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, presents Dr. Bryan Kolb with his Order of Canada, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Friday Nov. 17, 2017. Photo courtesy of Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall

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