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2017 file photo

Leading mental health research given federal boost

Alberta Children’s Hospital scientists search for elusive biomarkers using MRI technology

What if we could diagnose or even help prevent a child from developing mental disorders like depression with a simple MRI scan? Thanks to community support and a $3-million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), imaging scientists at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and University of Calgary have set their sights on doing just that.

“The same way biological markers in a blood test aid in the diagnosis of diseases like diabetes and leukemia, we want to uncover biomarkers that help identify, treat and potentially prevent the onset of symptoms for children at risk of developing mental illness,” says Dr. Signe Bray, Scientific Director of ACHRI’s Child and Adolescent Imaging Research program, member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and co-lead investigator on the CFI initiative.

Although blood tests, x-rays and other scans are critical in helping children with physical illnesses, those same biological tests have not yet been developed for mental illnesses. Calgary is now poised to help lead the way.

Funding from our community helped the Alberta Children’s Hospital establish what has become the fastest growing and among the strongest brain imaging research centres in the country. The CFI grant awarded to the team in March will advance its technological capabilities significantly, enabling next-generation precision in measuring brain structure, function, networks and neurochemistry in babies, children and teens.

“With unprecedented insights into the developing brain, we will be able to look for subtle clues in brain circuitry that may be at the root of conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and psychosis. Early markers will then become targets for new interventions that we will work to develop.”

Dr. Signe Bray,
Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute

Working in collaboration with specialists in adult imaging, the team will examine brain development and changes across the lifespan. As well, UCalgary scientists with expertise in neurodevelopment, neurostimulation, genetics, inflammation and the microbiome will also be engaged in this initiative, the first of its kind in Canada. The team will consult with the community on its research. The scientists will also recruit participants to reflect the Canadian population and more explicitly understand how gender, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic factors influence illness trajectories and treatment response.

Notably, the development of highly qualified personnel will be a cornerstone of this project, with more than 250 students and staff expected to be trained over the first five years.

“Since mental health is a global issue, we will share everything we learn with colleagues around the world,” says Bray. “We are incredibly grateful for the support we continue to receive for our work. Ultimately, we want as many children and families to benefit as possible.”

Of course, one of the team’s primary goals is to help translate findings as quickly as possible to advance care and treatment for kids and families. They will work closely with and within the new Centre for Child & Adolescent Mental Health being built in northwest Calgary. When it opens, the Centre will provide three new services for young people and their families. It will also be the most robust, research-intensive community-based mental health facility for young people in Canada. For the latest updates on the Centre, please visit buildthemup.ca.

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Members of the Child & Adolescent Imaging Research team seen here in 2017 (from left to right): Drs. Signe Bray, Ashley Harris, Marc Lebel, Catherine Lebel and Frank MacMaster.

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