Richard Boyce

Richard Boyce

March 2017 Trainee spotlight

Sylvain Williams

Antoine Adamantidis (now at University of Bern)

PhD student, year 6

Program of Study
Integrated Program in Neuroscience

Why did you choose to come to the Douglas?

I was initially drawn to the work of Sylvain Williams, a researcher at the Douglas, who at the time of my application to McGill was doing some interesting and innovative work on the basic mechanisms of synchronous brain (specifically hippocampal) EEG oscillations. Sylvain's lab was a natural fit for my PhD given that I had previously studied the changes which occur in the hippocampus during the development of epilepsy, a neurological order characterized by recurrent seizure activity due to excessive neuronal synchrony; I also had great interest in completing a more in-depth study into the role of brain oscillations in health and disease. Coincidentally, Dr. Antoine Adamantidis, a sleep researcher who had recently joined the Douglas at the time, was looking to incorporate analysis of brain oscillations into his own research. To make a long story short, I was recruited into a collaboration between Drs. Williams and Adamantidis where we saw a unique opportunity to directly probe the role of REM sleep in memory formation for the first time.

What did you do before coming to the Douglas?

My academic career started at the University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario) where I completed my bachelor degree in medical sciences.  Like most others in the same program, I had initially intended to pursue medical school after graduating.  However, for the final year of the program I was given the opportunity to gain first-hand research experience by completing an honours thesis research project in one of the laboratories in the department.  I ended up being matched up with Dr. Stan Leung, where I assisted with studying the neural mechanisms behind epilepsy development in rats.  I was immediately surprised by how much we still have to learn about the function of the brain in health and disease, and quickly realized that I wanted to combat this lack of knowledge directly.  I therefore chose to complete my MSc in the same laboratory while further studying epilepsy.  

Sell your research in three sentences (or less).

Despite decades of research, identifying the precise physiological function of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep has remained an elusive goal due to the inherent difficulty in experimentally isolating REM sleep from other basic behavioural states (e.g. non-REM/slow-wave sleep, wakefulness). My PhD research work has overcome these technical limitations to provide the first direct evidence linking REM sleep with memory formation. This work has significant implications for human health considering the prevalence of sleep disorders in modern society as well as the link between disturbances in REM sleep and cognitive decline in aging and Alzheimer's disease.

What excites you most about your research?

Sleep or sleep-like activity has been shown to occur in practically every animal studied to date. For example, even insects have regular periods of sustained inactivity and reduced responsiveness! However, the specific purpose of sleeping behaviour in nature remains unclear. That such a ubiquitous basic behaviour is still so poorly understood remains surprising to me despite having spent 6 years in the sleep research field; the opportunity to directly address such a basic lack of understanding is extremely motivating.

If you could go back in time and give your "younger self" advice, what would you do differently?

I don't have any major regrets, however, if I could go back to my undergraduate degree when I had a much less hectic schedule I would look to have spent more time gaining first-hand research experience (e.g. by volunteering to work in various research labs on campus). I have always had broad interests, so this would have ideally included branching out into fields, such as engineering, which were outside of my degree focus (pharmacology and physiology).