New neuronavigation system will take brain research to new horizons

An image of a brain on a screen

University of Waterloo professor Peter Hall and the team in his lab have been using experimental brain stimulation for years to explore brain systems involved in overeating.

In recent years, they have begun to explore a novel use of brain stimulation as a diagnostic test. By using a suppressive form of repetitive brain stimulation, known as continuous theta burst stimulation (cTBS), they can induce temporary suppression of neuronal activity in the cortex and observe recovery time. This kind of brain system challenge is similar to how other bodily systems are challenged for diagnostic purposes, for example, using an exercise stress test to probe for cardiovascular disease or an oral glucose tolerance test for diabetes. Ultimately, this research could help to identify people who may be in the early stages of degenerative brain diseases or suffer from subtle brain-related consequences of repeated concussions.

A new and highly exact navigational system for brain stimulation delivery, funded partially by the Government of Canada’s Research Support Fund and which arrived on campus in January, will support this research by enabling more precise targeting of brain regions.  

“We are the first lab to use cTBS in this particular way in North America,” says Professor Hall, School of Public Health and Health Systems. “The new equipment allows for very precise targeting of brain regions, which is really important for this kind of research.”

The neuronavigation system will be used to validate a series of new procedures to quantify brain health in clinical trials and population health research. Other studies with Professor John Mielke, Associate Professor, School of Public Health and Health Systems, will seek to quantify brain resilience to stress, sleep deprivation, and other disruptive influences in everyday life.

“Right now we are also envisioning new ways in which this technology might be used to probe the engagement of attentional systems during health communications about disease-related threats like Covid-19,” says Professor Hall. “Identifying maximally engaging media messaging – at the level of the brain itself – is important as we try to motivate sustained, population-wide self-protective actions over the long term.”

July, 2020