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Latest MRI technology helps scientists study brain development in children

Scientists at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) are harnessing the power of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study normal brain development and differentiations in children. The MRI produces exceptionally-detailed images that enable specialists to see not only how a child’s brain is structured but also exactly how it is functioning.

Brain-related health issues affect tens of thousands of children in Alberta. Thanks to your support, the Alberta Children’s Hospital has unique facilities that make the scanning process so child-friendly that ACHRI researchers have now created one of the largest collections of pediatric brain scans in North America.

Dr. Catherine Lebel and her team do their best to make it an enjoyable experience for all children participating in the Developmental Neuroimaging Lab research. “The kids think it’s so fun that they get to watch movies as their brains are being examined,” says Dr. Lebel. And for those who need a little practice before going into the scanner, an MRI simulator has been created at the hospital thanks to donor support. It’s designed to give kids the chance to get familiar with the sounds and feel of an MRI scan. This practice has made it possible for Dr. Lebel’s team to capture scans of young children that would not otherwise be possible without the use of sedatives.

Since the research began in 2013, Dr. Lebel’s team has collected almost 500 MRI datasets from 178 children aged two to seven years old. The team is interested in understanding how brain maturation is related to cognition and behaviour, and how these relationships may be different in children that are exposed to adversity.


 Olivia Brain Health
Olivia received a 3D model of her brain for helping with research at the Alberta Children's Hospital.

A special gift for research helpers

Although Olivia plays with many toys, one of her favourites is the 3D plastic model of her brain she received for participating in Dr. Lebel’s research.

“I can’t believe how big my brain is,” says the seven-year-old, “and I think it’s cool that I get to show off my brain to all my friends at school.”

“Children who participate in our MRI study used to get a copy of their brain scan to take home. Now we want to give them something even more special to thank them for their dedication, so we have started printing 3D models for them.”

Using data from the MRI scans, 3D models of participants’ brains are produced at half the actual size. The response has been overwhelmingly positive from the 14 children who have received the brain models so far.

Olivia’s mom, Amy Mueller, enrolled her daughter in the Preschool Imaging Study when she saw the opportunity advertised at the hospital. “It’s encouraging to know that the community supports this kind of important work to help kids,” says Amy. “I also think it’s amazing that Olivia is part of a medical research team and she’s just finishing grade two!”

3T MRI delivery

Did you know?

Thanks to generous community donations, the Alberta Children’s Hospital was the first hospital in Canada to acquire a 3-Tesla MRI for pediatric clinical care and research. It holds twice the power of a typical MRI. The scanner helps scientists study brain development and gives them an opportunity to better understand brain differences in children.

Good things come in 3Ts

Two is better than one and the Alberta Children’s Hospital is now home to a second 3-Tesla magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The new Siemens Vida machine has replaced the 1.5-Tesla scanner that was previously used for diagnostic and surgical planning purposes.

Generous donors made it possible for the hospital to acquire its first 3T scanner in 2012. As it is used primarily for research purposes, most clinical exams were done on the 1.5T. Now, thanks to community support, diagnosticians and researchers alike have access to high quality images from machines with magnets twice the strength of their predecessors.

“The 3T gives us more precise images of body structures and functions using advanced technology,” says David Schmidt, Director of Diagnostic Imaging at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. “This is helpful for radiologists in making the most appropriate and timely referrals to other specialists. Higher image quality also allows our team to diagnose a number of musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and neurological disorders faster and more accurately. As a centre of excellence in pediatric epilepsy and pediatric stroke, this is essential.”

Dr. Walter Hader is a neurosurgeon at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and relies on the MRI to map his patients’ brains in advance of surgery. For example, the images pinpoint the exact source of seizures in epilepsy patients and allow him to see things that may be tiny or otherwise hidden up close and in detail. This information is critical for planning the surgery required for each individual case.

“The images from the 3T MRI give us the best possible information about the structure and function of the child’s brain so that we can create a specific plan in advance of each surgery. With that information, we can go into the operating room with the greatest confidence.”

– Dr. Hader, neurosurgeon, Alberta Children's Hospital

Before the 3T scanner was available for diagnostic tests, many children with stroke or vascular malformations required CT angiography, which is associated with significant amounts of radiation, says Schmidt. Having the second 3T at the hospital has eliminated the need for CT angiography in most children with cerebrovascular conditions.

Another benefit is that the high image quality and advanced motion correction technology of the new machine have dropped mean test times by up to 50%. Since many children don’t need to stay in the scanner as long as they would have before, there has been a drop in the number of patients who require general anesthetic during their exams, says Schmidt.

“Acquiring this new technology has advanced the quality of care we can provide to patients and families,” he says. “We’re very grateful to the community for making this possible for the children in our care.”


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