Melissa Woodward works with the eye and brain connection to understand brain injuries.
Scans do not give much information when looking at brain damage from opioid overdose in a person experiencing homelessness. That’s why BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services researchers hope that retinal eye scans can give more information on the consequences of surviving an opioid overdose.
Melissa Woodward, who has a doctorate in neuroscience, is a researcher within BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services research institute, and the psychiatry department at the University of British Columbia. In 2019, she received a UBC Institute of Mental Health Marshall Fellowship Award to continue their research work. Under the title “The Age of Fentanyl – Overdose, Hypoxia, and Microvascular Damage,” they’ll use retinal eye scans to look at fentanyl-caused brain damage in persons living in unstable housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“The eye and the brain are very connected,” Woodward said. “Scientists like to say that the eye is the window to the brain. When we do brain scans, we’re looking at different things—it’s like moving water compared to blood vessels. With retinal eye scans, you can take a picture of the blood vessels.”
Woodward did their PhD research with Donna Lang before working Dr. William Honer. Dr. Lang is a professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Radiology. Dr. Honer is a professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry. They both work with BC Mental Health Substance Use Services.
Part of Woodward’s research is looking at brain scans taken of people in The Hotel Study. The Hotel Study follows people who live with unstable housing conditions in Vancouver. The researchers have collected over 1,500 brain scans as they are relatively cheap, mobile, and quick to finish.
“You usually see evidence of damaged blood vessels in the brains of people who are much older,” Woodward. “We’re seeing more damaged blood vessels in people who are in their forties.”
Since 2016, Vancouver has been greatly affected by the national opioid epidemic. Slowed breathing is one of the main results of opioid overdoses that don’t cause death, sees reduced oxygen supply to the brain, which can result in a coma or brain injury.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Woodward’s research follows 70 Hotel Study participants who test positive for using fentanyl at least twice within the previous six months. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Looking at all the factors that might affect brain functioning in people with unstable housing and live with concurrent disorders where they use substances while experiencing mental illness, is a complicated process.
“We look at statistics to find the effects of brain injury and compare with people who haven’t had a brain injury,” Woodward said. “You don’t find very easy answers. We do the best with the statistics that we can and ensure that the reviews are well-supported by the neurologists and radiologists who are experts at looking at the research.”
Woodward has also received a $1,500 Nordal Family Scholarship The prize is given to the top student or young researcher studying addictions and substance use.