“I’ve always been interested in how the brain works in general,” says Dr. Christoph Zrenner, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and Clinician and Scientist at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
After becoming a neurologist in Germany, Dr. Zrenner moved to Canada, where he was awarded a Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research grant through Brain Canada’s flagship program, which provides funding to early-career researchers. This grant supports his innovative research that combines two distinct non-invasive methods for treating neurological and psychiatric disorders such as depression and OCD.
“This funding was a big endorsement of the decision to come to Canada and in bringing my research here,” he says. “It’s a big leap with small kids. Receiving funding like this was a fantastic way to start a new scientific journey.”
Dr. Zrenner uses Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and Electroencephalography (EEG) to modulate brain function. He is treating symptoms of a variety of mental health disorders with a very specific personalized treatment that addresses pathological processes underlying brain conditions.
TMS is a procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. This treatment applies pulses to stimulate the brain in a specific area which assists the brain in transitioning from a pathological state to a healthier state. EEG, on the other hand, is a method to measure the electrical activity of the brain using small metal wires, or electrodes, attached to the scalp.
“TMS means transcranial or through the skull,” says Dr. Zrenner. “These are copper coils that we pass a brief current through which generate a magnetic field to stimulate a very specific area of brain tissue,” he says.
Dr. Zrenner and his team are incorporating EEG to understand what’s going on in the brain at the exact moment that they’re conducting the treatment.
Dr. Zrenner’s clinical background before moving to Canada was in the field of stroke.
“I learned a lot about how the brain goes wrong when part of it is damaged due to a blood vessel being occluded, and we used TMS and EEG to help the brain rewire after this structural damage,” he says. “But, I always thought that the real potential for this method is in treating the brain when it goes wrong functionally, because something between the different brain areas is out of balance or out of sync”.
Dr. Zrenner believes that the main potential of using TMS and EEG is in treating functional dysfunction in the structurally intact brain. He hopes that by using these two methods simultaneously they’ll find a way to help the brain get out of its pathological state and flip back to its healthy, normal, functional state.
His research at CAMH focuses exclusively on non-invasive approaches, providing a treatment option that does not require the use of medications, surgical procedures, or deep implanted electrodes.
This therapy offers significant promise to individuals living with treatment-resistant depression and OCD. Many living with mental health issues find that the existing care options are not always adequate.
“We see that the use of pharmacological therapies has its limits,” says Dr. Zrenner. “Sometimes we have to try four or five medications before something works even a little bit. Having an alternative drug-free option is hugely relevant.”
Dr. Zrenner’s research has the potential to be highly effective in stopping depressive episodes and maintaining brain health, ultimately reducing the risk and frequency of compulsions and other symptoms. We hope that our funding will help more Canadians live healthier lives and achieve their goals.”Chris Mak, Executive Director of The Erika Legacy Foundation
Dr. Zrenner expresses his gratitude to Brain Canada and The Erika Legacy Foundation for helping him jumpstart his research in Canada.
“Coming to a psychiatric hospital and applying what I learned in neurology here in Toronto has been a great journey,” he says. “We came with a big vision, and Brain Canada endorsed that vision.”
Brain Canada is helping neuroscientists like Dr. Zrenner transform the brain research landscape and improve the health of people in Canada. To learn more about the latest discoveries in Canadian brain research, and to donate to brain research, visit braincanada.ca.
The Erika Legacy Foundation is dedicated to funding breakthroughs in how our communities think, talk and act regarding mental health and suicide. For more information, visit erikalegacy.com.