A Simon Fraser University neural engineer is getting noticed for her research combining engineering and psychiatry to improve youth mental health.

Faranak Farzan is currently involved in two technology trials, one soon to be underway at Surrey Memorial Hospital testing brain stimulation therapy, and another using leading virtual reality in addiction treatment at John Volken Academy.

It is important to develop new avenues for treatment because other methods have a high rate of failure for a significant number of youth struggling with mental health issues, explained Farzan.

“Current treatments are not effective or cause side effects in a large percentage of individuals with mental illness,” she told The Peak, noting more than 30% of individuals with depression fail to respond to conventional antidepressant medications or psychotherapy.

“Therefore, it is important to develop new and more targeted therapies that are more efficacious and have less side effects.”

A professor in the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering, Farzan was recently appointed the inaugural Chair in Technology Innovations for Youth Addiction Recovery and Mental Health, by Simon Fraser University, the John Volken Academy, the City of Surrey, and the Surrey Fire Fighters’ Charitable Society.

The research projects are based in Surrey, a city that houses a significant youth population.

“Creating new pathways of care for youth impacted by mental health in Surrey would minimize impact of mental health on youth, society, and [the] healthcare system,” said Farzan.

Farzan aims to increase the use of non-invasive technologies, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in hospitals and health-care settings. She is currently in the process of setting up a trial at Surrey Memorial Hospital for the technology which works by stimulating the brain and simultaneously recording its activity.

“This technology . . . allows us to look at the integrity of specific brain processes in awake humans and compare them between healthy individuals and those impacted by mental illness,” explained Farzan. “The ability to objectively assess the integrity of specific brain processes through multimodal technologies can lead to development of objective diagnostic techniques.”

Another program headed by Farzan at the John Volken Academy is using virtual reality headsets to simulate situations for recovering addicts in order to assess their response to treatment.

“The progress has been great,” said Farzan. “We have formed many important partnerships, have rolled out several new studies in collaboration with people with lived experience.”  

Farzan is a PhD graduate from the University of Toronto, specializing in medical science and biomedical engineering, and completed her postdoctoral training in cognitive neurology at Harvard Medical School.

She is SFU’s second female professor in the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering.

“I was at a point in my career that wanted to put more focus on translating our research outcomes into real-life applications,” she said.

There is still progress to be made with these technologies, and the trials are currently in their very early stages, noted Farzan. One drawback to the TMS technology is that it is only accessible in hospitals.

This is another area where innovative technologies may come to help “by creating portable devices that can be safely used at home, minimizing the need to come to dedicated [centres],” she said.

More details on the progress of the trials will be rolled out in the coming months.

With files from CBC News.