Research Profile: Dr. Todd Woodward

Dr. Todd Woodward is endeavouring to lead the way to the next revolution in therapy for people with schizophrenia and psychosis. Currently, his research team is measuring how brain signals change as symptoms of psychosis become more severe. The goal is to use neuromodulation to impose symptom-free patterns on the brain of an individual with schizophrenia, improving their response to medication and other non-drug therapies.

As one of the world’s leading experts in imaging brain networks, Dr. Woodward recently won a major equipment grant. This funding will allow the purchase of equipment capable of modulating the brain’s signals with a precision that has not been possible until now.

“Our work in brain imaging has reached a point where we understand enough about healthy brain network patterns, and how they change as symptoms change, to start to test different ways to modify brain signals. The goal is to pre-treat clients with a healthier pattern of brain functioning that could make the individual more open to therapeutic interventions,” says the University of British Columbia Professor in Psychiatry and research scientist with the B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Research Institute (BCMHARI).

Dr. Woodward leveraged funding previously awarded by B.C. Schizophrenia Society Foundation. Through the generosity of its donors, BCSS Foundation provided $75,000 towards the purchase of a 256-channel electroencephalogram (EEG) machine. Fitting on the head like a cap with 256 tiny nodes, the EEG machine measures a denser amount of electrical activity in the brain, when compared to conventional EEG machines. With the support of the recently awarded funds (to him and Assistant Professor Dr. Christine Tipper), he now has the neuromodulation hardware that connects to the EEG machine. The two pieces of equipment will allow for the healthy recorded brain patterns to be fed back to the dysfunctional brain, helping an individual with schizophrenia get to a healthier state and possibly enhancing response to therapeutic interventions.

Drs. Woodward and Tipper are the first researchers in Canada to obtain the high-density neuromodulation hardware, and Dr. Woodward is the first schizophrenia researcher in the world to apply this to the treatment of schizophrenia. The first phase of research will continue their work studying the healthy brain to identify the brain networks required under a range of conditions, and to learn what changes in the brain of an individual with schizophrenia when they become unwell. The goal is to feed back these healthy brain patterns to people with schizophrenia, using the EEG neuromodulation system.

“The future impact on people with schizophrenia could be very substantial,” says Dr. Woodward. “By measuring healthy brain patterns, brain patterns that change when symptoms become severe, and feeding the healthy patterns back into the disordered brain, we can enhance the brain’s responsiveness to treatments. Ultimately, this could also impact any mental disorder such as depression or autism once we understand how the brain networks change for those disorders and alter them.”

For Dr. Woodward, like so many researchers studying schizophrenia, the importance of funding in furthering his investigations cannot be underestimated. Seed funding provided by the B.C. Schizophrenia Society Foundation has enabled Dr. Woodward to engage young scholars, cover the costs of research, and purchase necessary brain imaging equipment through his Cognitive Neuroscience of Schizophrenia Laboratory at the BCMHARI and the UBC Brain Dynamics Laboratory.

BCSS Foundation funding is also critical because the stigma surrounding schizophrenia continues to limit funding for research, says Woodward. This means that schizophrenia research and researchers aren’t getting the support and recognition they deserve.

Since 1995, BCSS Foundation has provided funding for more than 70 research projects and contributed nearly $2.5 million towards schizophrenia research. BCSS Foundation also partners with the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research to fund Trainee Awards for Post-Doctoral Fellows investigating schizophrenia.

While progress is being made to improve our understanding and treatment of schizophrenia, continued investment into schizophrenia and brain research is urgently needed. The more BCSS Foundation and its donors support research and researchers like Dr. Todd Woodward, the sooner we will be able to find better treatments and hopefully, one day, stop schizophrenia’s harmful impact on people’s lives.