Neurons that fire together, wire together

Cricia Rinchon
Graduate Student,
Krembil Research Institute
Using two techniques for electrically stimulating parts of the brain, Cricia Rinchon is exploring the possibility that if they are stimulated, the cells that make up a network in the brain will work together to correct the damage Parkinson’s disease has done.

As an undergraduate studying neuroscience at Western University, nearly every course Cricia Rinchon took mentioned Parkinson’s disease at one time or another. She knew it was the second most commonly diagnosed neurological problem, but she also learned just how much we still need to understand about this disease. This lingering sense of mystery prompted her to pursue Parkinson’s as the focus of her graduate school career, which has taken her on a fast track to doctoral studies at the University of Toronto.

At 22, Rinchon is working with some of the most prominent investigators in the field, at the University Health Network’s Krembil Research Institute. Rinchon received a two-year $30,000 Porridge for Parkinson’s (Toronto) Graduate Student Award in honour of Delphine Martin to further her study of neurons. Her work builds on the established success of deep brain stimulation (DBS), a technique that treats the symptoms of Parkinson’s with the use of an electrical pulse generator that surgeons implant to deliver stimulation to deep brain structures. Rinchon combines this approach with a complementary method called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which applies electrical pulses from outside a patient’s brain. By matching these two sets of signals, she’s exploring the possibility that together, they might restore balance in the network of brain cells that Parkinson’s damages.

“We are manipulating the way neurons talk to each other,” she explains. “You will often hear this phrase: neurons that fire together, wire together.”

That phrase refers to plasticity, the term for the brain’s remarkable ability to reorganize its structure in response to damage. Just as physiotherapists work with stroke patients to “rewire” pathways in the brain that have been affected by the stroke, Rinchon hopes combining DBS and TMS can help repair the ravages of Parkinson’s.

“We’re investigating to demonstrate that this technique shows promise for a clinical trial,” she says.

This preliminary research involves recruiting people with Parkinson’s, who have provided Rinchon with personal insight into this ailment. They enhance her research journey.

“We like to treat them as honoured guests,” she says. “These are people who undergo so many frustrating challenges from day to day. But they always seem to have such high spirits and optimism when it comes to participating in research—I find this incredibly refreshing.”

Working directly with people living with the disease, instead of solely in a lab environment, keeps Rinchon inspired.

“Here, I am reminded every day I collect data about why doing this research is important.”

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