With many other parts of the body you can physically see how an area functions, and what’s going wrong. But the protection of the skull and complexity of the nervous system has made it hard for researchers to really understand what goes on in our heads from a biological perspective.
As a result, surprisingly little is known about what goes on in the brain of someone managing a mental health issue.
To unlock this black box, Dr. Faranak Farzan, a neuro-engineer and brain health researcher, is drawing on the fields of engineering, computer science, psychology and psychiatry. Her team is developing new ways of looking at the brain in action, mapping its neural pathways, and spotting the changes that occur in conditions like depression.
“In the past, we were mainly looking at the brain as a series of static images. For example, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) could show you what the brain looks like, but it’s hard to determine function from a still image,” explains Farzan. “Now with functional MRIs and electroencephalography (EEG), we can see which parts of the brain ‘light up’ during a particular activity to get a better idea of how the brain works. But these techniques are still passive observations, they don’t allow you to stimulate one area and see where the signals travel to.”
To change that, Farzan and her team at eBrain Lab at Simon Fraser University have been using technologies such as EEG and fMRI combined with non-invasive forms of brain stimulation to trigger one area of the brain and see what other areas respond. Like momentarily turning on a flashlight in a dark room, just for a fraction of a second the researchers can get a glimpse of what is going on, helping them gradually build a map of the connections between different parts of the brain.
This new understanding of how healthy brains work is opening up new treatment opportunities for disorders like depression.
“In people with depression we have observed that some neural pathways may be excessively active, leading to abnormal connections between some parts of the brain,” explains Farzan. “Using non-invasive brain stimulation techniques like transcranial magnetic stimulation over a period of time, our aim is to target specific neural pathways and encourage healthier connections.”
The treatment can take as little as three minutes and feels like a tapping sensation on a ski or bike helmet. Afterwards, the recipient can go back to school or work without it affecting the rest of their day.
But for the treatment to work, multiple sessions are necessary. Think of it like learning a new skill. One training session doesn’t change much, but if you practise over time, you start to gain new abilities.
Farzan recently finished the first ever feasibility trial of this treatment in a group of 16 to 24 year olds who had not responded to other treatments such as antidepressants and cognitive behavior therapy. Over just 10 sessions, 85% completed the course and had a reduction in their depression symptoms, opening the door to a randomized placebo-control trial with more patients over more sessions.
For the 30-50% of youth with depression who don’t respond to standard treatments, or develop side effects, non-invasive brain stimulation could soon provide a much needed treatment option.
Dr. Faranak Farzan is an assistant professor in the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering at Simon Fraser University, and Chair in Technology Innovations for Youth Addiction Recovery and Mental Health. She received a 2018 Scholar Award to support her research on neuromodulation for youth addiction and mental health.