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Non-invasive treatment for people with depression

Research Impact June 28, 2022

Dr. Fidel Vila-Rodriguez runs the NINET (Non-Invasive Neurostimulation Therapies) Laboratory at the University of British Columbia. His promising research looks at how Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive therapy, can relieve symptoms of major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses.

In 2014, still early in his career, Dr. Vila-Rodriguez received a Brain Canada Platform Support Grant to create the Integrated Neurostimulation Platform. This critical funding established the foundation for research that can profoundly impact patients with mental illness in Canada.

A portion of the grant funded the creation of a powerful machine that combined TMS with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Bringing the two together allows researchers to study the effects of TMS in real-time in a patient and identify new targets for stimulation.

Creating the platform was a major undertaking. Both technologies employ high-powered magnets, which have to run in delicate balance so they don’t interfere with each other. It took years of work by engineers, physicists, and more to make it operational.

The grant also funded a pilot study to use the new platform to investigate the effects of TMS when used to treat depression. The results of this study were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in May 2022.

The study allowed Dr. Vila-Rodriguez to see what’s happening in the brain during TMS. From the first treatment, the fMRI images can also give a clue as to how effective TMS will be for a patient. From a neuroscience perspective, the project gives more insights into the workings of the brain while being stimulated. This exploration is laying the groundwork for other non-invasive treatment pathways in the future.

“This project is very close to my heart,” Dr. Vila-Rodriguez said. “It’s the first grant that I got as an early-career researcher. I put everything I had into it. Looking back, I can see how foundational it was.”

That initial investment of $277,500 has led to additional funding for a follow-up study. In addition, Dr. Vila-Rodriguez is using his hard-won knowledge to help other Canadian researchers build their own TMS-fMRI machines, multiplying the impact of the grant exponentially.

“I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have this kind of support at the early stages of your career,” said Dr. Vila-Rodriguez. “It was so encouraging for Brain Canada to be willing to invest in something that was high risk, but also high reward.” Research platforms are important enablers of capacity building and a cost-effective means of accessing cutting-edge equipment, technology, and services beyond what individual researchers can achieve on their own.