A B.C. neuroscientist has received a $2.5-million grant to research magnetic stimulation to treat substance-use disorders.
Nanaimo’s Travis Baker, an assistant professor at Rutgers University-Newark, is working with robot-assisted transcranial magnetic stimulation technology to alter the brain’s response to addictive substances.
The technology applies precisely directed magnetic pulses to alter the brain’s reward-response circuitry. It targets the anterior cingulate cortex – the portion of the human brain that, when stimulated, releases dopamine, the hormone which produces the sense of well-being and pleasure and motivation to repeat the behaviour.
In cases of addiction, that part of the brain can become hyper-stimulated and create an overwhelming desire to seek out the addictive substance or behaviour.
“[It] is really sensitive to these drug cues, so it creates this bias in the system…” Baker said. “We know that [transcranial magnetic stimulation] has the ability to increase and decrease neural activity … so if it has potential to do that, would I be able to increase and decrease reward-related activity?”
The $2.5 million grant from the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse – part of the National Institutes of Health – will cover two phases of Baker’s research over five years. The first phase of the grant will help him fine-tune the targeting of the system to optimize the stimulation or inhibiting of the reward response.
The second phase will test the method on smokers by applying stimulation while they perform a task for a monetary reward, then replaying the scenario, but applying an inhibiting protocol when they perform a task for a drug-related reward. Baker hopes to reverse the smokers’ bias to a preference for money over nicotine.
“The whole point of this grant is to try and figure out where on the surface of the skull – or circuits of the brain – to put this current,” he said.
He sees the potential for the results of his work, not as a stand-alone cure for addiction, but as an additional aid in treatment.
Baker was 22 when he decided his future wasn’t working in sawmills or oil rigs where he’d been working, and to go to university to follow his longtime passion for psychology and the sciences.
He graduated from Vancouver Island University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2004 before moving on to University of Victoria where earned his masters degree in science and his PhD in cognitive neuroscience in 2012. He did post-doctoral work at the Montreal Neurological Institute until 2016 when he went to the U.S. to search out opportunities to continue his research and is now an assistant professor at Rutgers University-Newark’s Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neurosciences.
“I found a really good position here at Rutgers University,” Baker said. “I was able to start up my own lab and get all the toys I wanted to carry on with the research that I’d been doing up to that point.”
He said his inspiration for the work came through someone close to him who has suffered from drug addiction, and he has always been interested to read about philosophy, the human brain and similar subjects. It was in his first semester studying psychology at VIU that he realized he was where he belonged and he set about learning and absorbing as much as he could – he credits professors Tony Robertson and Elliott Marchant with guidance that helped set him on his career path.
This summer, Baker he hopes to return home to Vancouver Island to visit his family whom he hasn’t been with since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a nice place to be,” he said. “I miss the Island, that’s for sure.”