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Behind the research: Promising results in trial of deep brain stimulation for PTSD

Sunnybrook researchers are demonstrating promising results in their Canadian first clinical trial, investigating deep brain stimulation (DBS) for treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Phase I trial investigating safety of the procedure began in February 2019.

Researchers have recently published a new report in Biological Psychiatry as the first patient in Canada to be treated in the trial has shown positive and consistent progress in the months following her treatment.

The Sunnybrook team is also the first group of researchers in the world to target an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VM PFC) with DBS for treatment-refractory PTSD, and the report highlights the success of this approach to date. The patient’s reactions to triggers have dramatically decreased. She has also experienced a significant improvement in her quality of life.

Sunnybrook researchers and the first patient in Canada to participate in the trial share their insight on the recent report and progress of this ongoing trial.

To learn more about or participate in the trial, please visit

Dr. Nir Lipsman

Dr. Nir Lipsman, study principal investigator, director of Sunnybrook’s Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation:

“The results of this trial to date are robust and encouraging as we continue to investigate innovative ways of treating PTSD and finding novel treatment options for PTSD sufferers who have been in military or experienced trauma and abuse.  Our findings emphasize the critical need for continued research as we enhance our knowledge of the brain circuitry of PTSD to advance the future of treatment and direct-to-brain therapies with cutting-edge imaging and technology. This research is possible, with thanks to the generosity of donors and funders who help drive our innovation forward, as well our inspiring patients who are helping us revolutionize the future of brain health.”

Dr. Clement Hamani, lead author and preclinical lead of Sunnybrook’s Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation:

“As the first researchers to study and apply deep brain stimulation to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in the treatment of treatment-refractory PTSD, it is exciting to see our preclinical research and the trial have demonstrated such promising results in our patient’s progress. This is the aim of our translational research; to lead to the development and discovery of future treatments that will help improve the quality of life for patients suffering from PTSD.”

Dr. Peter Giacobbe, study co-investigator, clinical lead of Sunnybrook’s Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation: (photo taken in 2018)

“More than 3 million Canadians have been diagnosed with PTSD and approximately 20 to 30 per cent do not respond to psychotherapy or medical treatment. By directly and precisely targeting an area of the brain involved in PTSD in our study, we are on the leading-edge of potential treatments for the future. It’s important to remember that patients respond to various treatments differently, and study findings could help further refine and personalize treatments for patients based on their individual needs and symptoms, which may bring hope to patients whose lives have been impacted by treatment-resistant PTSD.”

Serena Kelly, first patient in Canada to participate in the trial:

“Since undergoing deep brain stimulation surgery for the treatment of my PTSD, the quality of my life has improved dramatically. Intrusive thoughts and images no longer haunt or keep me awake at night. My life is no longer consumed by constant hypervigilance. After decades of avoiding anything that might trigger me, I am now able to face everything directly. Participating in the DBS for PTSD clinical trial gave me my life and independence back! I have been driving on my own again for over a year. I am back in university, nearing the end of my third semester and working towards a degree in psychology. Without the hard work and dedication of the clinical trial team I would not be where I am today, and I believe the research they are doing is invaluable and potentially lifesaving.”

Learn more about Serena’s story

About the author


Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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