Nov. 23, 2020

Med school prof named to Royal Society College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists

Catherine Lebel is leader in neuroimaging and brain development in children

A baby’s brain is about a quarter the size of the adult brain, but, incredibly, it doubles in size during the first year. This dramatic change, one of the most remarkable early life developments, drives Dr. Catherine Lebel, PhD, in her neuroimaging research to study how young brains grow. This drive and passion have earned her a place in the Royal Society of Canada College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, an honour reserved for Canada’s brightest emerging researchers.

“I’m extremely grateful for this honour," says Lebel, who is the Canada Research Chair in Paediatric Neuroimaging, a Killam Emerging Research Leader, a Peak Scholar, and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). "It gives me much pleasure to know that research into child development and early brain development is being recognized."

Early brain maturation

“Children’s brains grow really fast in the first few years, and continue to develop substantially across childhood,” says Lebel. “Brain connectivity especially experiences major maturation in the early years.” Lebel uses advanced magnetic resonance (MR) imaging techniques to study this brain connectivity. “I think it’s incredible what we can learn from a child spending a few minutes in an MR scanner,” she says.

What Lebel has discovered is changing our awareness of prenatal depression. The research team has shown that children whose mothers experienced even mild symptoms of the "baby blues" to more serious bouts of depression have weaker connectivity in brain pathways involved in emotion. These structural changes are related to increased hyperactivity and aggression in boys.

Leading national study of pregnant women

Lebel’s research in prenatal depression and infant brain development led to a keen interest in how moms were doing during the pandemic. When the lockdown began, Lebel, along with co-leads Dr. Gerald Giesbrecht, PhD, and Dr. Lianne Tomfohr-Madsen, PhD, jumpstarted research on how the pandemic was affecting pregnant women. Together, they co-lead the Pregnancy during the COVID-19 Pandemic study, which is characterizing how the pandemic has affected the mental and physical health of pregnant women, and how it will ultimately affect the health and well-being of their babies.

More than 8,000 women have already enrolled in the national study, with results presented virtually to parliamentarians in early November through a Research Canada forum. With data continually being gathered and analyzed, the study is finding that more women are reporting high depression or anxiety symptoms in their pregnancy compared to pre-pandemic rates.

The ongoing study is still recruiting. Lebel and her research team have fielded multiple interviews and the research has been referenced widely, including in National Geographic and the New York Times.

Lebel is also a mother, and she says being a mom has really illustrated first-hand the individual differences in learning and behaviour in children, and this has ignited her passion in paediatric neurodevelopment. “I’m really interested, not just in how kids are different at a group level, but how each child’s brain grows and changes and is related to their behaviour,” she says.

Lebel believes the next decade will open many new frontiers in child brain research and lifelong health. “We know that childhood development lays the foundation for adult health, and so I think there’s a growing recognition of the importance of early intervention and prevention, particularly with mental health.”

Lebel’s research has been supported by the Calgary community from participating study families and through support of the Child and Adolescent Imaging Research Program by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Lebel is an associate professor in the Department of Radiology at the Cumming School of Medicine, adjunct associate professor in the Werklund School of Education and a member of The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education, Owerko Centre at ACHRI, Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute.

Child Health and Wellness
The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and well-being of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across the campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.