A clinical trial for a type of brain stimulation therapy is planned at Surrey Memorial Hospital, and one expert says it can help youth suffering from addiction and depression, when all other options have failed.

Faranak Farzan, an assistant professor of mechatronic engineering at Simon Fraser University, says transcranial magnetic stimulation — or TMS — is much less invasive  than other methods of brain stimulation, like electroconvulsive therapy or shock therapy.

"Transcranial magnetic stimulation is essentially stimulating your neurons through very short pulses of magnet that's stimulated and directed to a specific part of the brain," said Farzan, who is also the chairperson for Technology Innovations in Youth Addiction Recovery at the university. 

"It does not hurt. It causes the neurons to fire up and change their activity over time when it's repeatedly delivered on that area over days."

When you're suffering from a mental health issue like addiction or depression, she explained, your brain gets stuck in certain loops and it cannot get out of those states.

Faranak Farzan

Faranak Farzan is in the department of Mechatronics Systems Engineering at Simon Fraser University. (Simon Fraser University)

The treatment re-configures the brain tissue and helps it find a new, healthier feedback pattern.

Different from shock therapy

Farzan said TMS is different from shock therapy, which uses electric currents passing through the brain of a sedated patient to trigger seizures. 

In some cases, shock therapy has caused short-term confusion and long term memory loss.

She says transcranial magnetic stimulation — which she has tested out on herself — feels more like a "light tapping sensation on the scalp."

In general, Farzan says there are fewer side effects than shock therapy, although some patients report headaches.

Patients undergoing TMS remain awake and alert, and the magnetic device is non-invasive.

Alternate therapy

The most promising aspect of the therapy may be its potential to help patients where other options have failed.

Using data from trials in the University of Toronto at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Farzan said, about 30 per cent to 50 per cent of youth who had failed other treatments including antidepressant treatments and behavioural therapy responded to this treatment.

"In addiction, it's possible that this sort of treatment gives them a baseline so that they can then go through a more longer term recovery in a more effective way."

The clinical trials will be run in partnership with the John Volken Academy, the City of Surrey, Simon Fraser University and the Surrey Fire Fighters Charitable Society.

Listen to the interview with Professor Faranak Farzan on CBC's The Early Edition:

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story stated brain stimulation trials were already underway.
    May 26, 2017 12:10 PM PT