Technology holds promise for youth battling mental health, addiction – new chair

A new non-invasive technology that shows promising abilities to reverse depression is just one example of the exciting research led by SFU professor Faranak Farzan, recently named the inaugural chair in Technology Innovations for Youth Addiction Recovery and Mental Health. The chair is supported by SFU, the John Volken Academy, the City of Surrey and the Surrey Fire Fighters Charitable Society.

Farzan is a neuro-engineer in the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering. She is leading research into non-invasis technologies for diagnosing and developing recovery-focused treatment for addiction and mental health, particulary among youth.

With national Mental Health Week (May 1-7) underway, SFU News talked with the newly minted chair about the role, and her goals:

What led you to become an engineer with an interest in psychiatry?

I was born into a family of doctors and engineers. My dad was an inventor, my mom, an electrical engineer, and my grandfather and aunt were doctors, so as I grew up I had exposure to both sides. I realized that within the field of psychiatry there are things missing that perhaps engineering could address, especially as technology is advancing. I have combined psychiatry and engineering to see where we can use technology to treat mental illness.

I was one of the only engineers in the Faculty of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. We aren’t used to thinking there is a link between engineering and psychiatry. But when we consider mental health or specifically depression, we can use technology therapeutically to modulate the brain and normalize impairments.

What attracted you to SFU?

SFU is an arts school by foundation, it is an innovative and engaging university and this is precisely what is needed when your goal is to bring things together that are not conventionally established. I was lucky to have created my own program for myself, combining biomedical, psychiatry and engineering, and I would like to create a new program like that here at SFU.

I heard about Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard and knew of SFU’s reputation for being entrepreneurial, with great resources for startups and innovators, and the success stories, so the opportunity really excited me. So did the connection to the John Volken Academy, and its focus on connecting community-based research with the university. This is what I mean by bringing it all together. It’s a perfect testbed and an opportunity to make meaningful change.

How are you applying technology to treat mental health?

My research aims to use technology to create new therapeutic solutions for people who suffer from mental health illnesses such as depression. I think of it this way: when we go to the doctor for an eye test, we get glasses so we can see normally. It’s the same thing suffering from mental health—there is a distorted view of reality and of self-worth.

We can use technology to understand how the brain works and create these ‘glasses’ and ‘lenses’, but for the brain. In this way, we try to normalize the brain into a state that it should be in, so it can function. We’re creating technological solutions that could help someone who doesn’t have the necessary biological means to activate the same brain processes in the brain to have a normal life.

What led you to focus on youth?

In trials, we’ve been aiming technology at youth who have depression and don’t respond to medication. It’s a major issue. Almost half of youth 15-24 don’t respond to medication that is typically prescribed and available. We use non-invasive technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation to target treatment to a specific brain area, and to understand what is different in the depressed youth’s brain.

After failed medication use, those in our study underwent two weeks of daily stimulation treatments and several responded well, saying they had had no idea what ‘normal’ felt like. This is a big deal for a population at the cusp of starting a future. When you can change the life of a youth, you change so many years ahead for that individual. The goal is to eventually have our method approved by health authorities.

What does your research involve?

We use technology in several ways. One is to learn more about how the brain works. We know of the brain’s plasticity and that it can be changed, so we are investigating how to modify it and what we can do to change it.

Then, just like a doctor checks knee reflexes, we stimulate the brain in specific areas and record the brain response simultaneously with multimodal technologies we developed over the past decade. We then compare signals recorded from patients and those in a normal, healthy control group. We assess the changes, then develop new technological therapeutics to treat the impairment.

Recently, while using technology to record brain waves, we found an electrical ‘marker’ in the brain that changes when receiving electrical stimulation in ways that correlate with behavioral improvements. It’s a tangible marker, we know where it is. We can now take that marker and target it with our non-invasive treatment. (This research was published in the March 2017 edition of the journal Brain ).

What are next steps?

We plan to continue with randomized trials of stimulation that introduce a placebo. We will also work with engineering colleagues to see how we can make electrical stimulation of the brain through magnetic stimulation a portable, wearable solution.

I’m excited to work with SFU colleagues on nanotechnologies and big-data solutions. Creating invisible solutions would go a long way to helping people to come forward and reduce stigma. Also, being able to predict an individual’s mental health well-being before the illness really starts and takes its toll is at the core of our research program.

How do you see this unfolding?

I can see how one day, we can go to the doctor and have these technologies and measures to assess brain health as part of the routine exam. There is little gap between neurological and psychiatric disorders, they just impact different parts of the brain.

We need to assess that with technology before an illness like Parkinson’s really starts. So, like the body mass index, we can call it the brain mass index of health, and everyone is followed over time. When a certain area is having some issues, neuro rehabilitation can be applied.

Ultimately, instead of applying generalized medications, we need to understand each person’s individual biology and create tools that are personalized and targeted. That could be the direction over the next 10-20 years.

Do you see yourself as a role model for women in science and technology?

My mother was a role model, she worked full-time and did her master’s degree in engineering and raised her children. I might be biased coming from a family of female engineers, but I would tell the younger generation, you can be whoever you want to be. There are many health questions and issues that require another view, and this may appeal to women. Engineering is an increasingly diverse field. I’m looking forward to working with many female students.