Catherine Lebel is a developmental neuroscience researcher at the University of Calgary. Catherine studies how the brain develops from infancy to early adulthood, with the aim of identifying the supports children need in order to thrive. She is also examining the impact of Covid-19 on children’s learning and development. Annie Brookman-Byrne talks with Catherine about how neuroscience can inform interventions, and the ways in which being a parent has impacted her research.
Annie Brookman-Byrne: How are you studying children’s brains, and what are you trying to find out?
Catherine Lebel: I have always been fascinated by the brain. I want to find out how, why, and when some children’s brains develop differently. And what does that mean for their learning, behaviour, and health?
I study children’s brains using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. It’s a way of looking at both the physical structure of the brain and the way the brain functions. In about half of my work I look at how the brain changes from infancy to early adulthood in typically developing children – those with no known difficulties who are developing as expected. In the other half, I work with children who have learning difficulties or mental health challenges, or who were exposed in the womb to alcohol or parental depression, for example. I look at how individual children’s brains change over time, taking many measurements over several years to map patterns of growth.
ABB: How will your research help children?
CL: Children’s brains shape how they learn and grow, and healthy brain development is critical for children to thrive. Brain growth is affected by many factors, including the child’s sex, age, and home environment. Understanding how the brain develops helps us determine which children might benefit the most from interventions or supports, and when those supports might be most effective. We can also look at the impact of interventions on the brain. Ultimately, a clearer picture of individual brain development over time allows us to find out more quickly who might need support, and enables us to undertake earlier, more effective interventions.
For example, developmental neuroscience research has shown how children’s brain development can be affected by parental depression. My collaborators have developed a very effective mobile app-based treatment for postpartum depression, and we are now looking at how treatment for parents supports children’s brain development and behaviour.
“Children’s brains shape how they learn and grow, and healthy brain development is critical for children to thrive.”
ABB: Has your understanding of children’s developing brains influenced how you parent?
CL: I have three children, and it has been really fascinating for me to watch them grow and learn, especially given my research. It has been eye-opening to see how different they are, despite relatively similar environments and genetics.
My research has informed my parenting to some degree, in that I know that children are different, and there is never a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting that works for all children. But the influence has been mainly in the other direction – my parenting has informed my research. Having seen first-hand how different children can be, I’m aware that no one intervention or learning program can support all children.
Researchers in my field often search for specific brain differences in children with disorders or differences, as if measuring some part of the brain will magically reveal who is going to struggle with reading or be inattentive. But while a brain tumour might have obvious impacts, brain traces of learning and behaviour differences are much more complicated and subtle. Therefore, we need to approach this research with care and an understanding that children differ in many complex, wonderful ways, and may need different types of support to thrive.
“Having seen first-hand how different children can be, I’m aware that no one intervention or learning program can support all children.”
ABB: What are you pursuing next?
CL: I’ve worked a lot on mapping brain differences and brain changes that occur with age, and will continue that work by studying the same children multiple times as they develop. There are many ways to measure the brain, and most studies use only one method at a time. With my team, I am excited to continue to look at how multiple measures of brain structure and function change as children grow older. This helps provide a more comprehensive picture of brain development, because different measures give us different information. We can then find out, for example, whether a child’s brain structure is developing on track while their brain function is not advancing as quickly. This can help us identify individual differences in children and consider what support they might need.
I am also excited about our research looking at children born during the pandemic. We are examining how parental stress, social isolation, Covid infections, and other factors may have affected children’s brain development and learning. Some children born during the pandemic are likely to need extra support as they enter school, and we want to understand how best to provide that support. Ultimately, I hope my work will help identify the different types of support children need to thrive.
Catherine Lebel is an Associate Professor of Radiology at the University of Calgary and a Canada Research Chair in Pediatric Neuroimaging. Her research uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to understand brain structure and function in children, and how the brain develops over time. She is particularly interested in how the prenatal environment shapes brain changes across childhood, and how that is related to learning, behaviour, and mental health.
This interview has been edited for clarity.