10:17pm Wednesday 22 January 2020

CAMH combines genetics with brain imaging to personalize treatment for mental illness and addictions

(TORONTO) – People struggling with a serious mental disorder and their treating physicians have long hoped for a time when they can know in advance how an individual will respond to medication.

This month, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is one step closer. It is launching a new research initiative poised to help revolutionize treatment for common psychiatric conditions like major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, as well as addictions.

Thanks to a $2.8 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) announced on June 18, researchers at CAMH will be able to combine the power of genetics and sophisticated brain imaging to personalize treatment. CAMH scientists aim to create tools with which physicians can identify the medication that will best fit an individual’s unique brain chemistry and genetic risk factors, helping to avoid trial-and-error prescribing, treatment failure, relapse, and serious side effects. CAMH scientists also hope to identify genetic targets that can be used to develop new, more specific and efficacious medications in the future.

If the CFI grant is matched by the Ontario government, as anticipated, a total of up to $7 million will be earmarked for the initiative, known as neuroIMAGENE. 

“CAMH is the only research enterprise world-wide that can compare DNA characteristics across 18 different psychiatric conditions. Integrating genetics with our positron emission tomography (PET) scanning technology to show neurochemical changes induced by drug therapies produces a powerful new tool to create targeted treatments,” says Dr. Bruce G. Pollock, VP of Research at CAMH.

Using brain imaging to guide chemistry

The first year after diagnosis is crucial in the treatment of an illness like schizophrenia, says Dr. Sylvain Houle, is spearheading the neuroIMAGENE initiative alongsideDr. James Kennedy. “If the first medication causes side effects such as diabetes or tardive dyskinesia [a parkinson-like side effect], that is just one more barrier for the individual to overcome,” he says. Side effects or lack of response can be a strong disincentive for the person with a mental illness to persevere with the treatment regimen, he emphasizes.

That is why the individual has a better chance for a stable and successful long-term outcome the sooner the right medication can be identified after diagnosis, Dr. Kennedy adds. The potential of neuroIMAGENE is to greatly increase the physician’s ability to choose the best medication for a given individual and more precisely determine the starting dose, he says. “It is hard to overstate what a powerful tool this research initiative could be in preventing relapse and the burden that can involve.”

Building on what we know

CAMH has a unique three-pronged research framework: in brain imaging, gene science associated with psychiatric disorders, and the pharmacology of treatment, Dr. Pollock adds. “This CFI grant gives us the platform to multiply the power of each element. Now, CAMH is setting a new gold standard in this integrated research arena.”

“This CFI grant recognizes that CAMH is uniquely poised internationally to make significant advances in both treatment and, potentially, even the prevention of serious mental disorders,” said Dr. Eliot Phillipson, President and CEO of the CFI.  

The award builds on a $15 million CFI grant awarded to CAMH in the Research Hospital Fund Competition of June 2008.


Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, as well as one of the world’s leading research centres in the area of addiction and mental health. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development, prevention and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental health and addiction issues. www.camh.net

A complete list of projects funded by the CFI can be found at: www.innovation.ca.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) is an independent corporation created by the Government of Canada to fund research infrastructure. The CFI’s mandate is to strengthen the capacity of Canadian universities, colleges, research hospitals, and non-profit research institutions to carry out world-class research and technology development that benefits Canadians.

Media contact: Michael Torres, CAMH Media Relations, at 416 595-6015

Share on:

MORE FROM Mental Health and Behavior

Health news