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Dr. Michael Amlung (left) and Dr. Katherine Naish prepare to test the TES system with graduate student Herry Patel.

A research group at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton is testing out a novel approach to addictions research that involves transmitting low-current electricity to stimulate specific areas of the brain.

Based at the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research, Dr. Michael Amlung and his team will be testing a new intervention called transcranial electrical stimulation (or TES) to learn more about how addictions work.

“We have two priorities right now. The first is testing TES in our 'bar lab' to see how it affects the way participants respond to cravings – and if it induces plasticity in the brain,” says Dr. Amlung, Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Addictions Laboratory at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and Assistant Professor at McMaster University.

“Our second priority is to test this intervention within the context of cannabis use. We’re interested to see the effect it has on cravings and risk-taking behaviours between users and non-users.”

TES is considered safe, painless and with minimal or no side effects. Participants are awake during the entire process, and typically don’t even feel the current after a few minutes.

“This is completely different from electroconvulsive therapy – which is about 400 times stronger than the type of transcranial electrical stimulation used in our lab,” says Dr. Katherine Naish, a postdoctoral fellow at the Peter Boris Centre. “We’re very interested in testing this new intervention to see if it could lead to a completely new way to treat addictions.”

In the United States, TES has been authorized by the FDA for treatment use in patients with depression. But little research exists currently on using TES in the context of addictions.

While TES has also been used in a do-it-yourself fashion by hobbyists and professional sports teams (such as the Golden State Warriors), Dr. Amlung advises against using TES outside of a controlled, medical environment.

“We’re testing this in a controlled, clinical setting to make sure that research participants are safe,” says Dr. Amlung. “We still need to investigate how long the effects last and if it can be used effectively by patients outside of clinical settings before we can understand how it would work as a potential treatment.”

Existing evidence-based treatments for addiction are either psychological or medication-based approaches, making TES an entirely new strategy.

“This has the potential to be an important new tool in treating substance use disorder and other forms of addiction,” said Dr. James MacKillop, Peter Boris Chair in Addictions Research and Director of the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research. “There has been enormous progress in identifying which brain regions are dysregulated in addiction and TES may ultimately permit us to directly treat the dysfunction in those regions.”

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