Dr. Vladimir Hachinski, CM, MD, FRCPC, DSc

Professor of Neurology and Epidemiology, University of Western Ontario
Researcher of the month: 
May 2012

One out of three family members. One out of three friends. One out of three work colleagues, neighbours or people we see on the bus each morning. It may not be something we want to hear, yet it remains an unyielding reality that a large number of us are going to have to face in our lives nonetheless – one of three of us is destined to suffer dementia or stroke.

This harsh statistic stems, of course, from our vantage point in 2012. Yet, each and every day, talented medical researchers around the world are working tirelessly in the area of stroke, dementia and Alzheimer disease to change our future for the better.

Canada’s own Dr. Vladimir Hachinski, a Distinguished University Professor of Neurology and past Richard and Beryl Ivey Chair of the Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences at the University of Western Ontario, is considered one of the world’s leaders in this charge. His contributions to medicine in the areas of vascular cognitive impairment, stroke, and brain-heart interactions are not only numerous, but saving and improving millions of lives by helping to delay or avoid the onset of cerebral vascular disease.

Distinguishing discoveries and recognitions

It was Dr. Hachinski who coined the term ‘brain attack’ to further educate the medical profession and the public to the urgency of therapeutic management of strokes and in the 1970s, along with Dr. John W. Norris, pioneered the establishment of the world’s first successful acute stroke unit, the most effective treatment for strokes of all types and severities. These specialized treatment units, now in health-care centres around the world, save lives and prevent complications for thousands of stroke victims annually.

"Organized stroke care works," says Dr. Hachinski. "It doesn't really matter what the size, location and hours of these clinics are. Patients benefit because you have interested people with expertise, following best practice standards and gaining experience from doing things repeatedly.”

Dr. Hachinski is also responsible for discovering the key role of the insula of the brain in cardiac complications of stroke including sudden death, and for crystallizing the concepts and coining the terms multi-infarct dementia, leuko-araiosis, vascular cognitive impairment and brain attack as well as devising the ischemic score that bears his name– the Hachinski ischaemic scale is thought by cardiologists and stroke experts to be the best and most widely used clinical method to distinguish between degenerative dementia and multi-infarct dementia. His research on the relationship between stroke and Alzheimer disease has opened important research avenues for the treatment, delay and prevention of these ailments.

Dr. Hachinski’s discoveries on the connections between the heart and brain during a stroke have yielded new strategies to control stroke risk factors, such as engaging a patient’s personal support network, and new diagnostic protocols to help prevent sudden death, measure the severity of strokes, and differentiate Alzheimer from multi-infarct dementia.

Dr. Hachinski has been the principle neurological investigator of international stroke prevention studies for over 20 years and is a prolific author, having written, co-authored or co-edited 17 books, and over 600 scientific and scholarly publications whose impact is reflected in over 23,000 citations and an H factor of 73. Editor-in-Chief from 2000-2010 of the journal STROKE, the leading publication of this field, he also began a unique mentorship program for authors of developing countries and has mentored over 100 physicians and scientists, some of whom have become leaders in their own right. 

Dr. Hachinski was the first recipient of the Trillium Clinical Scientist Award, given by the Ontario Ministry of Health to honour medical scientists working in Ontario, in recognition of outstanding research accomplishments and contributions to Ontario health care. In 2008 he was named to the Order of Canada and in 2010, he received the Ontario Premier’s Discovery Award in Life Sciences and Medicine. Most recently he was awarded the 2011 International BIAL Merit Award in Medical Sciences for a monograph on “The Long Fuse: Silent Strokes and Insidious Alzheimer Disease”

Dr. Hachinski has also recently published a book of poems in Spanish under the “nom de plume” of Alejandro Aranda entitled Resonancias.

“I have always been interested in understanding and improving things,” says Dr. Hachinski on the matter of his drive and motivation. “I have also been very blessed to work with wonderful colleagues and students.”

“If we are able to prove the link between stroke and Alzheimer disease, as well as mitigate the damage of stroke and delay the onset of Alzheimer disease, I would consider these my greatest accomplishments above all else.” 

Then and Now

Born in Ukraine, Dr. Hachinski grew up in Venezuela before eventually coming to Canada at age 17 to earn his medical doctorate from the University of Toronto in 1966. “I was intrigued by neurology in medical school, but I didn't think that I was smart enough”, he recalls. The young Dr. Hachinski soon changed his mind, however, after being assigned to a neurology ward where he acquired an instant reputation for diagnosing neurological problems – a reputation that he felt called upon to justify. He subsequently trained in neurology, undertaking a cerebrovascular laboratory fellowship at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases at Queen Square in London, England.

Today, Dr. Hachinski is widely respected by his peers, and is the first Canadian President of the World Federation of Neurology (WFN), a highly regarded association of national neurological societies that represents 114 professional societies in 113 countries in all regions of the world.

Dr. Hachinski and his colleagues at the WFN have worked hard to get the ten major world brain organizations together to form the World Brain Alliance, an organization whose efforts are based on three central premises – (1) the brain is key to health, (2) brain health begins with the mother’s and the child’s education, and (3) our brains are our future.

“As president of the WFN, I’m responsible for leading an effort to redefine the WFN’s mission to foster quality neurology and brain health worldwide,” says Dr. Hachinski. 

Rebecca Clarke