HRI Senior Scientist contributes to national discussions on the legalization of cannabis

As Canada enters its second month following the nationwide legalization of cannabis, Dr. James MacKillop, HRI Senior Scientist and Director of the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research and the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research, is encouraging Canadians to think critically about cannabis use.

“Legalization has prompted an intense national discussion on cannabis, which is a very good thing”, says Dr. MacKillop.

“But the discussion needs to focus on facts and evidence, rather than opinion and anecdote. We need to think critically about where cannabis fits into the larger landscape, both as a recreational drug and as a potential treatment.”

In the news

Dr. MacKillop has contributed to a number of influential discussions aimed at helping Canadians make informed decisions about marijuana use:

Dr. MacKillop also led a recent roundtable discussion exploring the impact, benefits and risks of cannabis, as well as opportunities to advance research. Hosted by the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research, the roundtable involved stakeholders from across the mental health and addiction research community.

The bottom line: more research funding is needed to separate fact from fiction when it comes to cannabis use for both medical and recreational purposes.

Dr. MacKillop is recognized as a leading national expert on cannabis. His research integrates perspectives from psychology, psychiatry, cognitive neuroscience, and behavioral genetics to improve our understanding of psychoactive drugs.

Recently, Dr. MacKillop was awarded the 2018 Anne and Neil McArthur Research Award from St. Joseph’s Healthcare.

This award is presented to an internationally recognized researcher whose field of study is also a focus of research at St. Joseph’s Healthcare.

Congratulations, Dr. MacKillop, on this much-deserved honour.

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Advancing research for military and veteran mental health

Military members and veterans are among those most vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is an urgent need to identify new and innovative treatments that will help military members suffering from trauma-related illnesses.

The Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) hosts an annual forum, bringing together thought leaders from the government, research institutions, industry and philanthropic sectors. A major goal of the forum is to understand how new research findings can be used to help military personnel, veterans and their families.

Here are some highlights outlining HRI’s contributions to this year’s forum.

Building a national network for trauma research

HRI has been bringing leaders together to identify research needs that will have the greatest benefit for people with PTSD.

On October 16, Dr. Margaret McKinnon, Homewood Chair in Mental Health and Trauma, led an interactive workshop, building on a collaborative planning exercise that took place at the 2014 CIMVHR forum. The workshop invited input to establish research priorities for the next four years.

The session attracted a broad range of stakeholders, including individuals with PTSD, scientists, clinicians, military members, public safety professionals, and first responders.

Dr. McKinnon and Dr. Ruth Lanius shared findings from research conducted since 2014, and facilitated discussions to shape the next phase of the HRI research program. The session also set the stage for partnering with other organizations, including the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment (CIPSRT), which uses research to improve treatment in first responders.

Leading discussions about cannabis

Dr. James MacKillop, HRI Senior Scientist and Director of the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research and the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research appeared as a keynote speaker at this year’s CIMVHR Forum, sharing insights from the latest medical research on cannabis a mere 15 hours before its legalization.

“While there is relatively consistent evidence supporting cannabis as an approach to pain management, that doesn’t mean cannabis use comes without risk,” says Dr. MacKillop.

According to MacKillop, two of the biggest risk factors include:

  1. Impairment, particularly motor coordination impairment, which could lead to motor vehicle collisions and workplace accidents, and
  2. Overconsumption, which can cause delirium and psychosis.

Dr. MacKillop also reminded attendees that – contrary to popular belief – cannabis is addictive.

“Although cannabis is far from being the most addictive drug, its actions in the brain are similar to drugs like alcohol, cocaine and heroin; it affects the same regions that are responsible for reward and motivation.”

Dr. MacKillop is a leading authority on cannabis and has been in the media spotlight recently. Click to read more about his contributions to national discussions about the legalization of cannabis.

HRI Research Trainee receives award for moral injury study

We are pleased to announce that HRI Research Trainee, Alina Protopopescu, was the recipient of the 2018 Editor’s Choice Award at this year’s CIMVHR Forum.

Dr. Stephanie Belanger, Associate Scientific Director of CIMVHR, presents the 2018 Editor’s Choice Award to Alina Protopopescu. (Photo credit: CIMVHR)

Alina, a PhD Candidate in the Research and Clinical Training Stream in the Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour Program at McMaster University, received the award for her presentation of recent findings that examined the relationship between childhood abuse and moral injury.

A moral injury may occur when a person is forced by circumstances to act in a way that violates his or her moral standards. For example, consider the soldier who may have no choice but to harm innocent people while stopping a major terrorist assault.

In the presentation, Alina shared results from a study conducted in collaboration with Anthony Battaglia, which suggested that military personnel and veterans who experience childhood emotional abuse may be at risk for developing a moral injury during their service. The findings provide clues as to how we can better treat moral injury, particularly in populations like military members and veterans.

Congratulations, Alina, on your award!

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Using technology to diagnose PTSD and its subtypes

An HRI Research Trainee is using neuroimaging and machine learning to discover how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is related to patterns of brain activity, and the findings could have important implications for both diagnostic and preventative medicine.

Dr. Andrew NicholsonDr. Andrew Nicholson is a post-doctoral fellow affiliated with Western University, McMaster University and Lawson Health Research Institute. His postdoctoral fellowship is funded jointly by Mitacs Elevate and HRI, and his research focuses on the use of neuroimaging techniques to advance healthcare.

In a recent publication co-authored by HRI Associate Clinical Scientist, Dr. Ruth Lanius, and Homewood Research Chair in Mental Health and Trauma, Dr. Margaret McKinnon, Dr. Nicholson reported findings that suggest technological advances may enable early diagnosis of PTSD and its clinical subtypes.

About the study

Machine learning multivariate pattern analysis predicts classification of posttraumatic stress disorder and its dissociative subtype: a multimodal neuroimaging approach was published last month in Psychological Medicine.

In his study, Nicholson and his team used functional MRIs to document patterns of resting brain activity in three groups:

  1. Individuals with no history of PTSD (healthy control group)
  2. Individuals diagnosed with PTSD, and
  3. Individuals diagnosed with the dissociative subtype of PTSD (PTSD + DS)

The dissociative subtype of PTSD is characterized by symptoms of detachment and emotional numbness. It is different from the more familiar type of PTSD, which often results in difficulty controlling strong emotions and outbursts.

Nicholson’s study found that when patterns of brain activation were fed into a machine learning algorithm, the computer system predicted the classification of PTSD, PTSD + DS ,and healthy controls in new subjects with 91.63% accuracy.

Functional MRI images from Dr. Nicholson’s study show patterns of brain activity that are used to detect and classify a PTSD diagnosis.

How can these findings advance healthcare?

Dr. Nicholson’s findings suggest that distinct patterns of brain activity are associated with specific forms of PTSD. These brain activity patterns are considered unique biomarkers that may aid in the early diagnosis and intervention of PTSD and its subtypes. Nicholson’s findings may also help people with PTSD understand that there is a physical basis for their disorder.

New technologies can help us understand how symptoms of mental illness are related to brain activity. They enable the potential for detecting diagnoses that may not have been previously suspected or considered, and they facilitate expedient and objective diagnoses, opening the door to more individualized treatment approaches.

Dr. Nicholson’s work is unearthing valuable neurobiological clues about how to classify and better treat mental illness. To follow his research, visit

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Holiday Giving Banner Image

The holiday season is the perfect time to become a champion and help people struggling with mental illness and addiction.

From now until December 31, we invite you to support HRI’s Holiday Giving Campaign and make a donation that will help us change lives through research. Your donation will help to:

  • Transform mental health and addiction services through research
  • Improve care through the measurement of treatment outcomes in mental health and addiction
  • Engage leading scientists, universities, patients and clinicians
  • Merge research with practice to improve care faster

Meet our Campaign Chair: Janice Lace

Janice worked at Homewood Health Centre for 30 years. As Director of Operations, she collaborated with HRI on a number of research initiatives to improve patient care. We are grateful to Janice for her support and are honoured that she has agreed to serve as our 2018 Campaign Chair.

“I believe the partnership between HRI and Homewood Health has the potential to transform mental health in Canada.” – Janice Lace

HRI Research Day: find out how your donations are used

We welcome you — our community, partners, friends and followers — to learn about studies currently underway on HRI Research Day 2018.

Speak directly with our scientists and research trainees to find out how HRI is helping to fill critical gaps in Canada’s mental health and addiction systems.

Riverslea BuildingHRI Research Day 2018
Tuesday, November 27
11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
HRI Offices, Riverslea Building
150 Delhi Street, Guelph ON


New this year: the Darlene Walton Scholarship Fund

We are pleased to announce a new scholarship to support students entering the field of mental health and addiction research.

Darlene WaltonThe Darlene Walton Scholarship Fund honours the legacy of a dear friend to HRI. For 38 years, Darlene worked at Homewood Health Centre, giving her best each day to help patients recover. An avid supporter of HRI, she recognized the importance of training the next generation of researchers to improve care in Canada.

Sadly, Darlene passed away in June of 2018. You can support Darlene’s vision of a brighter future by directing your donation to the Darlene Walton Scholarship Fund when you make a donation online today.

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Upcoming Symposium on Addiction and PTSD

Addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often occur together, causing debilitating consequences for those affected. There is little consensus among clinicians about how best to treat individuals suffering from both disorders, but new research is providing hope for patients and healthcare providers alike. This will be the focus of an upcoming symposium.

ConferenceIn October, experts from HRI and Homewood Health Centre will discuss the latest science, outcomes and promising practices related to the treatment of co-occurring addiction and PTSD at the 2018 Canadian Society for Addiction Medicine Annual Meeting and Scientific Conference (CSAM).

Each year, CSAM brings together researchers, educators and clinicians from across Canada and around the world. This year, the conference explores the theme “Crisis, Controversy and Change”, shedding light on the urgent need for improvements to mental health and addiction care. Experts from various disciplines will present research and exchange ideas to advance science and treatment.

The joint symposium, coordinated by HRI Research and Evaluation Scientist, Dr. Jean Costello, will feature the following speakers and topics:

  • Dr. Vivian Sarabia, Addiction Physician at Homewood Health Centre, will discuss the leading hypotheses that attempt to explain why PTSD and addiction often occur simultaneously;
  • Sabrina Kaur Syan, a PhD student working alongside HRI Senior Scientist Dr. James MacKillop, will present results from a study that investigates PTSD symptom severity as a predictor of drop-out from inpatient addiction treatment;
  • Dr. Hollam Sutandar, Addiction Psychiatrist at Homewood Health Centre, will discuss a pilot study that examines the use of Cognitive Processing Therapy in treating patients with co-occurring PTSD and addiction; and
  • Dr. Margaret McKinnon, Homewood Research Chair in Mental Health and Trauma, will share findings from a trial investigating the use of Goal Management Training (a cognitive skills training program) in patients with PTSD, as well as patients with co-occurring PTSD and addiction.

This symposium is an excellent example of the collaboration between Homewood Health Centre clinicians and HRI researchers. Together, we are generating findings and bringing new treatment ideas into practice sooner.

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Promoting Patient-Oriented Research

Recovery from addiction can mean different things to different people. A recent publication by HRI Research and Evaluation Scientist, Dr. Jean Costello, highlights the importance of incorporating insights from people with lived experience when building systems for measuring treatment success.

How to Measure Addiction Recovery? Incorporating Perspectives of Individuals with Lived Experience was published in the June 2018 edition of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Co-authored by Senior Research Associates, Courtney Ropp and Sarah Sousa, and HRI Senior Scientist, Dr. Brian Rush, the article outlines a study conducted between December 2014 and March 2015. Study participants were recruited from the Addiction Medicine Service Aftercare/Relapse-Prevention Program at Homewood Health Centre.

Group discussionThrough a series of focus groups and interviews, researchers identified four major themes related to how participants perceived recovery:

  1. Recovery is a process.
  2. Abstinence is an important aspect of recovery, but not sufficient.
  3. Recovery is multidimensional.
  4. Recovery requires ongoing commitment.

The authors conclude that recognizing recovery as a life-long process reinforces the need to measure and monitor outcomes well after treatment is completed. Further, input from individuals with lived experience helped to identify a number of important indicators of recovery that should be measured as part of a comprehensive outcome-monitoring system.

This study promotes the concept of human-centred design, which incorporates insights from end users during the development of a product or service. In this instance, patients are helping to shape research that will be meaningful to others experiencing addiction.

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Leading Evaluation Expert Joins HRI Team

We are pleased to announce that Dr. Brian Rush, Scientist Emeritus with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, has joined the HRI team as Senior Scientist.

Dr. Brian RushDr. Rush is a leading international expert in program and policy evaluation. With a research career that spans nearly 40 years, he has a particular interest in performance-measurement systems for substance abuse, problem gambling and mental health services. Dr. Rush will play an integral role in further developing the Recovery Journey Project at HRI.

The Recovery Journey Project is a rigorous data-collection system that allows for the ongoing evaluation of mental health and addiction treatment at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ontario. The system holds great potential for guiding improvements to care in Canada and beyond.

Led by Dr. Jean Costello, Research and Evaluation Scientist, the Recovery Journey Project is a flagship model that can be adapted for use in a range of treatment settings to measure recovery outcomes. Dr. Rush will work alongside Dr. Costello as the Recovery Journey Project expands.

Recovery Journey Project Highlights:

  • One of Canada’s only longitudinal studies measuring mental health and addiction recovery success
  • Helps us monitor and evaluate treatment quality and effectiveness
  • Generates knew knowledge about the recovery process
  • Can help determine how best to use limited resources to help as many people as possible
  • Adaptable to fit other treatment domains and settings

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Multi-year research study sheds light on addiction recovery

Since 2015, Homewood Research Institute (HRI) has partnered with Homewood Health Centre to collect data from patients who receive treatment in the Centre’s Addiction Medicine Service (AMS).

Originally known as Post-Discharge Outcomes Monitoring or PDO, this data-collection system is led by HRI researchers and was piloted to allow for the rigorous and ongoing evaluation of the quality and effectiveness of Homewood’s program by collecting and analyzing data from patients as they navigate their first year of recovery after treatment.

HRI is pleased to announce that, as of April 30, 2018, the PDO system has a new name and has been embedded into regular practice within the Addiction Medicine Service. Clinical data is collected by AMS staff while patients are receiving inpatient treatment. Following discharge, patients are then invited by HRI to take part in research on the recovery process.

Recovery Journey Project feature imageNow known as the Recovery Journey Project, this collaborative effort is one of the only longitudinal studies in Canada designed to measure key indicators of recovery over time. The Recovery Journey Project will help us better understand the recovery process among those who receive mental health and addiction treatment. In this way, it will guide improvements to programs and lead the way to measurement-based services – at Homewood and beyond.

To mark the launch of the Recovery Journey Project as a fully integrated research study at Homewood, HRI has created a microsite outlining the project’s key features and findings. Updates and knowledge translation activities will be shared as the study progresses.

What’s Next?

The potential impact of the Recovery Journey Project is vast: this framework can be utilized to measure recovery outcomes across a range of treatment domains. Currently, the system is being refined for implementation within other Homewood Health programs.

For updates on the Recovery Journey Project, subscribe to HRI Connects or visit

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