SFU Mechatronics Systems Engineering professor Faranak Farzan is the inaugural Chair in Technology Innovations for Youth Addiction Recovery and Mental Health.

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Chair-holder eyes technology solutions for youth with mental health, addiction issues

April 19, 2017
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Simon Fraser University, the John Volken Academy, the City of Surrey and the Surrey Fire Fighters’ Charitable Society have named professor Faranak Farzan as the inaugural Chair in Technology Innovations for Youth Addiction Recovery and Mental Health.

Prof. Farzan is from the University of Toronto and joins SFU’s School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering as its second female professor.

A neuro-engineer who combines engineering and psychiatry to address mental health, she will lead research in non-invasive technologies to diagnose and develop recovery-focused treatments for youth struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

“I am excited by the opportunity to bring my research to SFU, which is known for being entrepreneurial, and to work with the John Volken Academy, with its focus on connecting important community-based research with the university,” says Farzan.

Farzan earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical and biomedical engineering at McMaster University, and a PhD at the University of Toronto in a collaborative program of medical science and biomedical engineering. She completed her post-doctoral training in cognitive neurology at Boston’s Harvard Medical School.

Farzan will also have a role with the City of Surrey’s Youth Mental Health initiative. She will work with stakeholders from universities, government, health authorities, civil services, and social service agencies to create a Youth Mental Health strategy, focusing on substance use and addiction recovery. She will also help to bridge the initiative with Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard.

"As Canada's 'engaged university,' SFU is proud to be a leader in the development of technology based healthcare solutions,” says SFU President Andrew Petter. “Dr. Farzan's research strengths and community collaborations will lead to healthcare innovations that will improve the quality of life for young people and others who struggle with mental health and addiction issues.”

Research goals

Farzan uses multiple non-invasive technologies, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation and neuroimaging, to target and assess the health of specific brain circuitries, and to understand differences in the brains of those suffering from conditions such as depression or addiction.

“Our goal is to develop innovative technologies to identify early changes in brain processes which, if left untreated, lead to addiction, depression and suicide attempt.  Such solutions should become available for monitoring brain health in the general population in schools and at family clinics.”

It’s a complex process that also means working to advance science across several disciplines. “Technology to treat the brain is one thing, but we also need to continue studying the complexities of how the brain works. We know of the brain’s plasticity and that it can be changed. But we still have a way to go to investigate how to modify the brain effectively, and with what tools.”

Her recent research identifying an electrical ‘marker’ in the brain that can be used to create new antidepressant treatments was published in the March 2017 edition of the journal Brain.

Meeting the need

Surrey is strategically positioned to develop new solutions, Farzan notes. “We are bringing psychiatrists, entrepreneurs, computer and data scientists and the community together to create novel and tailored treatment solutions for youth who suffer from mental health and addiction.

“We are also desperately in need of effective treatments for this population. Current solutions are not tailored for maximum efficacy for youth brains and as such, do not work in a large portion of those affected.”

Farzan will work with SFU’s nanotechnology and big data researchers to create invisible and easily accessible solutions to reduce stigmatization and fear of coming forward to seek help.

“This can be game-changing particularly for youth, at the cusp of starting their futures. It can change the trajectory of their lives. And when you can change the life of a youth, you change so many years ahead for that individual. This will have a significant impact on the healthcare cost.”

Farzan will also teach biomedical engineering and health technologies and train recovery-focused experts and innovators to address these large social issues.

The John Volken Academy and the City of Surrey have provided $500,000 each towards the chair while the Surrey Fire Fighters’ Charitable Society has contributed $250,000. SFU is providing funding for additional support related to the position.

WHY IT MATTERS:

• According to the Canadian Mental Health Association 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience mental illness in their lifetime.

• Approximately eight per cent of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.

• Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) reports that 70 per cent of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence. Young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group.