Lebel, Dr. Catherine

2021 Finalist: Emerging Change Maker sponsored by RSM Canada

Dr. Catherine LebelDr. Catherine Lebel is an international leader in pediatric neuroscience

Dr. Lebel holds the prestigious Canada Research Chair in Pediatric Neuroimaging. Her work uses advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologies to study how children’s brains develop, and how brain growth is related to cognition, behaviour, and environmental factors.

Dr. Lebel holds multiple leadership positions, including Director of the Child Brain & Mental Health Program within the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI). As Program Director, she leads over 80 faculty members conducting diverse research related to children’s brain development and mental health.

Dr. Lebel leads the Developmental Neuroimaging Lab that focuses on applying advanced neuroimaging techniques to better understand brain development throughout childhood. Dr. Lebel has led the field in developing reliable techniques to obtain MRI data on young children, and she has capitalized on these innovative techniques to uncover new knowledge of structural and functional brain development in early childhood. Early childhood is a period of dramatic changes within the brain, reflected in learning and behaviour. However, there is little human brain research in early childhood because of practical difficulties obtaining MRI data. Dr. Lebel and her team have developed innovative methods to make children comfortable during MRI scanning. For example, they transformed the MRI scanner at the Alberta Children’s Hospital into a rocket ship to make it more child-friendly. They wrote and published a children’s book (Pluto and the MRI Rocket Ship Adventure) that explains the process of MRI scanning (“riding in the rocket ship”) and developed a training program that takes children through various steps to become “an MRI astronaut”.

Dr. Lebel also studies the brains of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Dr. Lebel has also made significant contributions to understanding brain alterations in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This is a very understudied population, despite the fact that it is more than twice as prevalent as autism (4% of individuals in Canada meet diagnostic criteria for FASD). Dr. Lebel has used her innovative methods to obtain large amounts of MRI data in children with FASD, and as a result, published the first ever neuroimaging studies in young children with FASD.

Dr. Lebel’s Pregnancy during the COVID-19 Pandemic study is an excellent example of her seizing an opportunity to have an impact. Dr. Lebel quickly identified the impact these shutdowns and care changes would potentially have on pregnant individuals. Given her previous research, she knew that prenatal stress can also have long-term implications for children, including brain changes, and higher risk of behaviour and mental health problems. detailed exceptionally high rates of anxiety and depression in pregnant women. Rates were 3-4 times higher than normally expected in pregnancy, which has major implications for both these pregnant women and their children.

“Dr. Lebel has a strong reputation as a pediatric neuroimaging expert within Canada and she is very quickly growing her international reputation. Dr. Lebel’s outstanding accomplishments have made her a leader in the field of pediatric brain development. She will continue to conduct novel, exciting research that will push the field forward over the coming years.”

Dr. h.c.mult. A. Leemans
Associate Professor
Imaging Sciences Institute
University Medical Center
Utrecht, The Netherlands