Brain-related health issues affect tens of thousands of children in Alberta. Whether they are neurologic or mental health in nature, they can impact a child’s development, intelligence, personality and life-long potential. That’s why - with your help - we are investing in crucial expertise and equipment to advance brain research and care.
Over the past few years, generous community donations have helped our hospital acquire state-of-the-art imaging technology, including the 3Tesla Magnetic Resonance Image scanner (3T MRI) - equipment that is so impressive, it’s helping attract new scientists to Calgary and positioning our hospital as an emerging leader in pediatric brain research.
For decades, medical science depended on surgery or autopsy to learn about the brain. Thankfully, advanced imaging technology like the 3T MRI now enables experts to map the regions of the brain with unprecedented clarity and see its chemistry and function in real time. They can now see the body’s most complex organ at work; in a sense, they can see it “thinking.”
Energized by a growing team and new resources, our hospital has embarked on an exciting research plan to help children with injury and illness of the brain. Innovative projects already underway include:
A first in the world research pilot using non-invasive brain stimulation called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to treat teenagers with major depressive disorder. Early trial results are very promising with what appear to be high success rates and immediate gains for participants. The 3T MRI is helping researchers understand how this treatment affects the brain. Since the two primary treatments currently available - anti-depressant medication and cognitive behavioural therapy - are effective in less than half of kids who receive them, new treatment options like this one are urgently needed.
A first in the world clinical trial using 3T MRI to study melatonin as a therapy for Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS) - a condition previously considered untreatable. Based on the success of an earlier pilot study at our hospital, our researchers hope to demonstrate therapeutic benefits and to develop ways to measure the biological changes caused both by PCS and melatonin. In some cases, PCS can be as difficult for a child to deal with as severe brain trauma. This study is the only major Canadian Institutes of Health Research-funded medical treatment trial for concussion in Canada today.
Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder using 3T MRI
Another exciting new area of research taking place at our hospital centres on understanding the biology behind Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - a developmental disability that affects an estimated 1 in 88 children.
One of our researchers involved in this work is Dr. Signe Bray, a cognitive neuroimaging scientist. Her interests lie in Neurodevelopmental Disorders: conditions like ASD that result in impairment of the normal development of a child’s brain or central nervous system affecting behaviour, memory and/or ability to learn.
Dr. Bray and her team are among the first researchers, internationally, to use brain imaging for understanding how variations in specific regions of the brain relate to characteristic ASD behaviours: strained social interaction and communication, and unusual sensitivities to sensory stimuli.
Why is understanding brain structure and reward circuitry important?
Conventional therapies for ASD are rooted in encouraging positive behaviour and ignoring negative behaviours. While most children respond well to this form of teaching, results of these behavioural-based therapies among kids with ASD have widely varying degrees of success. This leads our researchers to believe that reward circuitry and surrounding brain structure may develop differently in kids with ASD.
“If we can pinpoint crucial circuits and systems involved in autism, our hope is that this will lead to the development of ways to modify them,” says Dr. Bray. “Our ultimate goal is to find new interventions that can help children and families living with the challenges of this disorder.”
Dr. Bray’s study will involve 50 children with ASD and 50 typically developing children.
With continued community support, our goal is to extend the benefits of our imaging program to help children with a broad range of brain disorders such as epilepsy, stroke, attentional and learning disorders, autism spectrum disorder and chronic pain/headache.