Dr. Jeffrey Atkinson: MCH pediatric neurosurgeon talks about his career and his research

It’s a long road to becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon. The MCH’s Dr. Jeffrey Atkinson knows that first hand, and he credits a few key influences along the way for helping him get here.
Dr. Atkinson grew up in St. Thomas, Ontario, where his father was a pediatrician. “St. Thomas is a small town near London,” he says. “For 18 years, my dad was the only pediatrician in town. He was a consultant pediatrician and was involved in various areas such as neonatal care. He was on call all the time.” Eventually Dr. Atkinson’s father was joined in his practice by several partners, but it didn’t reduce his workload that much. “Ironically, I think my dad had fewer calls when he was the only pediatrician. People probably thought they should only bother him for true emergencies!”
Our own Dr. Atkinson embarked on his medical career at the University of Toronto where he completed two years of undergraduate study before going to medical school. His electives in neuroscience turned out to be some of his favourite courses and that, combined with his dad’s good opinion of several neurosurgeons he knew, set Dr. Atkinson on the path to neurosurgery. “Charles Drake was a very well-known neurosurgeon at the University of Western Ontario; patients came from far and wide to be treated by him. Putting the pieces together, I can see how I became interested in neurosurgery.”
After graduating from U of T, Dr. Atkinson was matched to McGill so he set off down the 401 for his neurosurgery residence, which ran from 1994 to 2002. In the middle of his residency he did three years of research on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) brain imaging centre. In 2002, he left for Salt Lake City for a year to do a pediatric neurosurgery fellowship at the University of Utah.
In the five years of clinical work during his residency, Dr. Atkinson did six months of pediatric rotation at the MCH. Dr. Jean-Pierre Farmer, who was the program director at the time, acted as Dr. Atkinson’s mentor. Dr. Farmer and Dr. José-Luis Montes set up the fellowship opportunity in Salt Lake City, and they were instrumental in Dr. Atkinson’s eventual decision to join the MCH team.
Together, the three MCH neurosurgeons perform 350 to 400 surgeries a year and follow approximately 2,500 patients across a number of clinics. Dr. Atkinson emphasizes the strong multidisciplinary aspect to what they do at the MCH; they frequently work with staff from Neurology and Oncology, as well as people from other sites. “We get quite a lot of consults from Université Laval and Université de Sherbrooke,” he says. “They often participate by teleconference in our tumour board meetings.”

Conducting fMRI research in the clinical setting
Dr. Atkinson is currently working on developing an fMRI program at the MCH. His interest in fMRI research has been helped by the addition of the Pediatric Interventional Brain Suite, or iMRI suite as it’s commonly known, which opened in October 2009. This new equipment has provided many advances to the neurosurgical team. “Although brain tumour and epilepsy surgeries actually take longer in the iMRI suite, our hope is that by performing one single surgery instead of repeat surgeries, we’ll have better outcomes,” he says.
The idea behind fMRI is to look at the function of the brain to guide treatment. Patients need to be awake and co-operative to undergo neurosurgery. “With the iMRI suite, and more new equipment brought in last year, we’re now able to do fMRI on patients,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll be looking at clinical patients to help guide our research.”
Interest in this area of research is gaining ground and several of Dr. Atkinson’s colleagues, including Drs. Pia Wintermark, Isabelle Gagnon, and Cathy Limperopoulos, are also pursuing research in fMRI. As well, the speech-language group has been looking at how to identify speech centres in the brain.
Away from the MCH, Dr. Atkinson enjoys being at home with his wife Dr. Marie-Emmanuelle Dilenge, a neurologist at the MCH, and their young son. It’s now going on 17 years since he first came to Montreal, and Dr. Atkinson reports that he likes living here. “Sometimes I think it would be nice to live in a small town but given our career choices, it’s not likely that’s going to happen,” he says with a laugh.