Western University, Canada - London Ontario

| Thursday March 23, 2017
6:23 AM

Academic Appointment

Assistant Professor in the Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences
Cross appointment in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Western University

Bio Sketch

Dr. Whitehead completed his PhD training under the supervisions of Drs. David Cechetto and Vladimir Hachinski at Western University. Dr. Whitehead's thesis work investigated the neuroinflammatory interactions in novel rodent models of Alzheimer's disease and stroke. This work served as a platform for the further investigations into animal models of co-morbidity and has attracted the attention of several investigators culminating in the creation of the CIHR group on Vascular Cognitive Impairment. Dr. Whitehead then completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Ottawa under the supervision of Dr. Steffany Bennett where his research focused on developing novel methods to detect small glycerophospholipids as well as to characterize their role in neurodegenerative diseases. Dr. Whitehead continued his research at the National Research Council of Canada where he focused on characterizing membrane lipid domains and their role in rendering neurons vulnerable to attack. Overall, Dr. Whitehead's biochemical, behavioral and molecular biological approaches to examine neurobiological questions has led to publications in leading journals such as Stroke, JBC Analytical Chemistry and PNAS.


One in three individuals reaching the age of 60 will have a stroke, develop dementia or both, unless prevention improves. Converging literature suggests that Alzheimer Disease (AD) and cerebrovascular disease not only coexist, but interact. Clinical investigations have also highlighted the critical relationship between stroke and other vascular risk factors and cognitive impairment. Stroke alters the clinical expression of a given load AD pathology and beta amyloid (Aß) burden alters the clinical response to a stroke. Therefore it is possible that the exacerbated levels of Aß and corresponding neuroinflammation if left untreated may fester over time and lead to enhanced neurodegeneration and cognitive decline. One such mechanism that may render neurons more or less sensitive to toxic insults may lie within the neuron's physical structure. The plasma membrane, composed mainly of lipids is a fluid dynamic structure that has the ability to change its fatty acid composition to adjust and react to its external environment. Some of the plasma membrane's heterogeneous function is determined by its structure through the formation of membrane raft (or lipid raft) domains. Membrane rafts are membrane microdomains that are rich in sphingolipids and cholesterol and have been shown to play a role in neuronal domain specific signaling events including axonal growth and neurodegeneration. An understanding of plasma membrane lipid biochemistry may prove to be valuable in the fight against brain disease.

Research Focus #1: Rodent models of co-morbidity:

To explore the relationship between vascular risk factors and AD, novel rodent models of neurodegenerative diseases have been and are currently being developed in the laboratory. Characterization of these models on their own, or in combination is done using standard histological, biochemical and behavioural assays. Rodent models include AD, stroke, diabetes and hypertension.
Research Focus #2: Membrane lipids and neurodegeneration:
MALDI-MS imaging is an emerging technology that combines the multichannel (m/z) measurement capability of mass spectrometers with a surface sampling process that allows rapid real-time probing and mapping of small molecule content in tissues. This is a valuable tool to investigate the spatial distribution of specific biomolecules in biological systems and animal models of disease, including components of membrane rafts. Using this technique and other biochemical methodology, we evaluate the temporal and spatial expression pattern of various membrane lipids in our rodent models of AD and stroke.

Overall Significance:

Research in our laboratory addresses two major hurdles in the understanding of co-morbid brain diseases such as AD and stroke. The first is via the development and characterization of physiologically relevant animal model systems that accurately reflect what is seen humans. The second hurdle that this proposal addresses is a common molecular target, or series of targets that can change in both AD and stroke. Studying the lipid changes within the plasma membrane is an intuitive strategy since the plasma membrane is more often than not the first sight of cellular response to stress.

Shawn Whitehead

Medical Interests

  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer's Disease
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases