Brian MacVicar

by Sarah Ferguson

Brian MacVicar
Brian MacVicar

Brian MacVicar earned his PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Toronto in 1980. He then began post-doctoral work at the University of Michigan and, following that, the New York University Medical School.
He returned to Canada as an associate professor at the University of Calgary. It was there that he showed that astrocytes – a type of glial cells in the central nervous system (CNS) – were not passive cells as had been previously thought.


MacVicar and his team discovered that astrocytes have high voltage-gated calcium channels. A voltage-gated channel is activated when an action potential reverses the membrane potential of the channel. This opens the channel and allows the ion – in this case calcium ions – to travel into the cell. After being activated, the channel then will enter a period of inactivation and the calcium ion flow is blocked.
This discovery fueled research in the properties of active glial cells in the 1990s. At that time, MacVicar’s group was investigating how the calcium responses effected neurons and attempted to map the spread of depression in relation to calcium waves.
He has been involved with the development of imaging techniques that can be used to monitor optical signals in the brain. He was among the first to image synaptic activation in brain slices and during human operations. He also developed software for imaging that is licensed to be sold world-wide.
In 2003, he left Calgary and joined the Brain Research Centre and the department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.
MacVicar has expertise in using two-photon laser scanning microscopy, which can be used for 3D imaging of living cells. He has used this technique to show that moving calcium ions in astrocytes “cause vascular constrictions thereby regulating cerebral blood flow.” This has implications in the understanding of how the brain regulates its own blood supply and how this is impacted by events such as strokes and dementia linked to inadequate blood flow to cells in the brain.

Positions and Distinctions

MacVicar served as the President of the Canadian Association of Neuroscience from May 2008 until May 2010. He was the Chair of the Scientific Program Committee for the inaugural CAN Meeting that was held in 2007 in Toronto. He also served this position in the following two years. In 2009 he was also the Chair of the Organizing Committee of the annual meeting.

In 2008, MacVicar was awarded the directorship of the Leducq Foundation Transatlantic Networks of Excellence Program where his job was leading a five-year collaborative project.

He is currently a co-director of the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, a facility that brings together neuroscience, neurology and psychiatry experts for collaboration in training, research and clinical work.
MacVicar is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Health Science.