June 26, 2020

Paediatrician recognized for research to improve autism diagnosis

Canadian Paediatric Society, developmental section, awards Sarah MacEachern the Dr. Debbi Andrews Trainee Award
Brain scan
Dr. Sarah MacEachern, MD, PhD, analyzing MR images Colourbox

Dr. Sarah MacEachern, MD, PhD

It’s not every day you meet an MD/PhD who is also an award-winning advocate for children with disabilities. Each year the Canadian Paediatric Society gives an award for the best presentation by a developmental paediatrics trainee. This year, Dr. Sarah MacEachern, MD, PhD, received that award — the Dr. Debbi Andrews Trainee Award. And she is thrilled to be a recipient.

“This award means so much to me,” says MacEachern, a subspecialty resident in the Department of Paediatrics at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and a research trainee at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

“Dr. Debbi Andrews was one of the first developmental paediatricians in Canada and was committed to medical education and research, and it is an honour to receive this award in her name.”

Neuroimaging biomarkers

MacEachern earned the award for her research into neuroimaging biomarkers for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) which could help provide an accurate diagnosis in complex cases. A neurodevelopmental disorder, ASD often causes challenges with social communication, sensory differences, and repetitive and restricted patterns of behaviour. 

ASD affects approximately one in 54 children in North America, with boys affected four times more frequently than girls. Diagnosis is currently made based on a detailed clinical assessment. MacEachern assesses children in clinic at the Child Development Centre.

I hope my research can help support children with developmental and emotional-behavioural differences, and their families.

Her study looked at 62 children — about half with, and half without ASD. She used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) combined with advanced computing to provide an accurate classification of the two groups. MacEachern measured structures of the brain such as the thalamus, hippocampus and cerebral cortex, as well as microstructural changes in those areas using diffusion measurements.

The information was analyzed using a machine learning technique known as deep neural network. She was able to identify with 70 per cent accuracy the children with ASD in the study.

“The image-based biomarkers for ASD are promising and could serve as the platform to create a more accurate and robust model for clinical application,” MacEachern concludes in the study.

The children were enrolled through the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, part of Stanford University Health in California.The research was done in collaboration with ACHRI and Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) member Dr. Nils Forkert, PhD, Canada Research Chair in Medical Image Analysis, and Dr. Kristen Yeom, MD, a paediatric neuroradiologist at Stanford University.

“The Department of Paediatrics is extremely fortunate to have Dr. MacEachern in our Subspecialty Developmental Paediatrics Program. Dr. MacEachern, also a previous chief resident of our PGME program, has been quite prolific as a trainee and the innovate imaging and neural networking research to aid in diagnosis is groundbreaking,” says Dr. Mark Anselmo, head of the Department of Paediatrics.

Advocate for children with disabilities

MacEachern is a longtime advocate for children with disabilities. She co-founded the Children’s Adapted Physical Activity (CAPA) program at Mount Royal University. Through the Alberta Medical Association, she partnered with the Jooay App team to promote a free smartphone app designed to connect children with disabilities and their families with recreation programs to increase physical activity. In 2017, she was honoured as an advocate for people with disabilities by the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and Accessible Housing Calgary.

She is currently working with a team on a sensory toolkit for children with ASD to be used in the emergency department (ED) to improve the experience for these children, their families, and health-care providers in the ED. The project is supported by a Healthy Generations Paediatric Residency Advocacy Education Grant through the Canadian Paediatric Society.

MacEachern completed her MD/PhD in neurosciences at the University of Calgary in 2016 with the mentorship of Dr. Keith Sharkey, PhD, at HBI.

Brain and Mental Health strategy
Led by the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteBrain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university and positions researchers to unlock new discoveries and treatments for brain health in our community. 


Dr. Nils Forkert, PhD, director of ACHRI’s Child Health Data Science program and assistant professor departments of radiology and clinical neurosciences