Jan. 26, 2022

Pediatric-brain imaging initiative maps the developing brain for neurodevelopmental disabilities in kids

Developmental Neuroimaging Lab at UCalgary home to one of the world’s largest MRI data sets of kids’ brains
Azrieli Accelerator gift to UCalgary research

There’s more than a little artistry and complex creativity behind the science of gathering data from children who’ve been asked to hold still for 30 minutes inside a metal tube (imagine an MRI machine decked out as a rocket ship with music and movies for happy distraction).

Still, Dr. Catherine Lebel’s research — which has, so far, been informed by upwards of 550 images of typical brains of kids — can help answer one powerful question: how can we better help children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental disabilities (NDDs) reach their potential?

The newly created Azrieli Accelerator will draw on expertise like Lebel’s to help us understand how differences in connections in the brain can lead to NDDs, and how those differences can lead to everyday challenges — from behaviour and decision-making (or executive function) to mental health. There are many ways to look at how these brain circuits form and evolve over the lifespan. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) helps neuroscientists visualize these connections in real people, and in real time.

An associate professor of radiology, Lebel, PhD, leads the Developmental Neuroimaging Lab at the Alberta Children’s Hospital where she uses MRI to learn how brain-growth and changes over time are related to cognition and behaviour. Over the past five years, she and her team have collected one of the world’s largest collections of brain MRI data from children, starting at age two — a group largely understudied when it comes to brain development due to the difficulty of asking pre-schoolers to lay motionless in a scanner.

Catherine Lebel

Catherine Lebel's research at UCalgary helps us better understand how we can help children with neurodevelopmental disabilities.

UCalgary files

Highlighting sensitive periods of brain development

The lab’s unique set of data is laying the groundwork for new understanding of NDDs, and potential interventions, by contrasting images of typically developing brains with images of atypically developing brains to highlight sensitive periods of brain development in children. This research also has the potential to provide insights into learning disabilities, cognitive and behavioural issues, and mental health conditions.

If interventions can target part of the brain that might be developing in an atypical way, for a child with, say, dyslexia, “we can discover if the intervention is working and we may be able to guide personalized interventions,” says Lebel, a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. The brain images also inform her exploration of which parts of the brain may be affected by neurodevelopmental disabilities triggered by brain injury, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and prenatal stress in mothers.

Awareness of these issues is not only potentially reassuring to families who wonder what’s different about their child, but they are also able to explore medical interventions or therapy at an earlier stage.

“We collect different pictures that tell us about brain volume, brain connectivity, function and blood flow, and we can pair that information with an assessment of the child’s cognition and behaviours,” says Lebel.

The Azrieli Accelerator will transform neurodevelopment research across the lifespan through collaborative and transdisciplinary teams committed to improving the lives of all those affected by neurodevelopmental disabilities. This new initiative — made possible by the Azrieli Foundation — will enhance collaborations across the university, in the community and throughout the global network. It builds upon the university’s more than 50-year history of advancing related research, which has been supported by transformative investments by government, community partners and generous philanthropists, including the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation; the Owerko, Cumming, Hotchkiss, Snyder, Mathison, and Fenwick families; and many others.


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