This project from UHN's KITE Research Institute seeks to utilize the power of smiles. (Photo: The KITE Research Institute)

As mental health struggles rise, teams of medical experts continue to explore alternative methods to treat patients in a safe and respectful manner.

At UHN's KITE Research Institute, a team led by Institute Director Dr. Milos R. Popovic, is working to treat patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) by using a therapeutic method called functional electrical stimulation therapy (FEST).

Dr. Popovic's idea came from a book discussing the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist who studied emotions and their relations to facial expressions. A short two-sentence passage about how Dr. Ekman's patients felt intense sadness after 15 minutes of frowning led Dr. Popovic to begin the Smile project.

First, a little background.

There are two kinds of smiles: voluntary and genuine. A voluntary smile consists of movement of just the mouth. A genuine smile includes an involuntary muscle movement around the eyes and eyebrows called the Duchenne marker.

Genuine smiles stem from feelings of positive emotion. Dr. Popovic shares that he wanted to see if stimulating the Duchenne marker would change the moods of individuals diagnosed with MDD, a complex mood disorder.

Currently, there is no long–term cure for depression, only methods of managing symptoms.

The research for the Smile project began in 2013 when Dr. Popovic recruited Dr. José Zariffa to help him conduct a study using FEST. FEST uses electricity to stimulate muscles, causing them to contract.

Stimulating weakened or paralyzed muscles while a patient attempts to contract those muscles works to retrain the central nervous system. In time, this can lead to a person regaining movement.

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