Looking at addiction in innovative ways wins Dr. James MacKillop the 2019 Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research

OTTAWA – Research to understand all types of addiction – alcohol, cannabis, opioids, tobacco, gambling, and even food – using a rarely seen combination of diverse areas of science has garnered Dr. James MacKillop of McMaster University and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton a $100,000 prize for mental health research.

The Royal Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research is the most prestigious prize in Canada for rising-star mental health researchers. It is given each year to help recognize and support their innovative and ongoing research endeavours. 

Dr. MacKillop’s approach brings together many scientific perspectives, including clinical psychology, microeconomics, cognitive neuroscience, and molecular genetics. In integrating these perspectives, Dr. MacKillop has become an international leader in applying behavioural economics and neuroeconomics to understanding addiction. Embedded in large treatment programs for addiction, his work also integrates insights from patients and clinicians. 

“The Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research recognizes and supports researchers who look at mental health in innovative ways to drive treatment forward and improve lives,” says Joanne Bezzubetz, President and CEO of The Royal. “Dr. MacKillop is doing just that, merging various areas of science not only in the laboratory but in the clinic so that patients can benefit from research in real time.”    

Dr. MacKillop’s research seeks to understand the causes of addiction and to understand why some people fare well in treatment, yet others continue to struggle - rates of relapse are 40% to 60%, according to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse. The hope is that research can lead to better treatments that target the causes of addiction and ultimately lead to better outcomes.

Dr. MacKillop’s research looks at a wide variety of influences. “Addiction is too complex to be fully understood by any single discipline,” he says. Many factors combine to lead to addiction: genetic vulnerabilities, early life stress and adversity, a person’s social network, and concurrent mental health problems. He examines how these diverse influences are linked through effects on self-regulation, emotional regulation and reward valuation. This is where behavioural economics comes in – the formal study of the factors that govern the choices people make and the values they put on goods or outcomes.. Dr. MacKillop’s research shows that individuals afflicted with addiction overvalue the addictive substance or behaviour and undervalue alternative, healthy rewards. 

Dr. MacKillop founded the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research five years ago, a collaboration between McMaster University and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. Since its launch in 2014, the Centre has generated nearly 200 publications and has received nearly $15M in grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the National Institutes of Health, and other funders. 

Recently, Dr. MacKillop launched the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research to conduct research into this growing therapy. According to Health Canada, medical cannabis authorizations have increased from fewer than 8000 in 2014 to nearly 350,000 in 2018, an increase of more than 4000%. 

“There is a critical need for more research on both the potential benefits and associated risks of medical cannabis,” says Dr. MacKillop. His cannabis research is seeking to understand both sides of the cost-benefit ratio. According to Dr. MacKillop, “I’m neither anti-cannabis, nor pro-cannabis, but I am pro-evidence and we need much more research to give cannabis consumers, medical or recreational, the information they need.”

Dr. MacKillop will be discussing his research at the prize ceremony, which is open to the public.

Where: The Royal Mental Health Centre, 1145 Carling Avenue, Ottawa

When: Thursday, December 5, 2019, 6 p.m.

For interviews and further information:

Karen Monaghan, Director, Communications
Telephone: +1 (613) 722-6521 ext. 6449
Toll free: +1 (800) 987-6424

About The Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research

The Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research was established jointly in 2015 by the Mach-Gaensslen Foundation of Canada and The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research, affiliated with the University of Ottawa. The prestigious national prize recognizes excellence in clinical research, innovative thinking, collaboration, imagination and originality, and awards $100,000 annually to an outstanding rising star researcher in the field of mental health, to encourage them to continue to pursue their research interests.