Feb. 26, 2019

Children receive 3D models of their brains

Scientist Catherine Lebel finds a special way to thank families who participate in MRI research
Olivia Mueller, age seven, loves to play with her favourite toy — a plastic model of her own brain that she attaches to her toy bunny.

Olivia Mueller, age seven, loves to play with a plastic model of her own brain attached to her bunny

Mueller family

Olivia plays with many toys but she really likes the 3D plastic model of her brain — which she received because of Catherine Lebel’s research. “Her model brain is her favourite toy,” says Amy Mueller, Olivia’s mom. “I can’t believe how big my brain is,” says Olivia, “and I think it’s cool that I get to show off my brain to all my friends at school.”

Dr. Lebel, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Radiology in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) with a pediatric research program that relies on technology called magnetic resonance imaging or MRI to detail normal brain development and differentiations. “Children who participate in our MRI study usually get a copy of their brain scan to take home but we wanted to give them something special as a thank you for their dedication, so we have started printing 3D models for them.”

Calgary company helps create the models

Using data from the MRI scans, 4G Vision Tech, a Calgary company, has been able to create 3D models of participants' brains that are produced at half the actual size. Lebel’s research assistant, Mercedes Bagshawe, BA’17, worked with the company to turn the idea into a reality. “I loved creating something that we could give to the kids in our study that they hold in their hands,” she says.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive from the 14 children who have received the brain models, including Olivia, age seven. Mueller placed her daughter in Lebel’s Preschool Imaging Study after a second MRI scan.

Brain-related health issues affect tens of thousands of children in Alberta. The Alberta Children’s Hospital has unique facilities that make the scanning process child-friendly, allowing Lebel and her team to collect a very large dataset of pediatric neuroimaging. The MRI produces images of the complex and individual structure of the brain, enabling specialists to see not only how a child’s brain is structured but also exactly how it is functioning.

University of Calgary researcher Catherine Lebel gifts brain models to kids who have been part of her magnetic resonance imaging study of brain development at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

Catherine Lebel gifts brain models to kids who have been part of her study.

Don Molyneaux

Support from the community

Funded through the generous support of community donations through the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, the 3T MRI is Western Canada’s first 3-Tesla MRI scanner and holds twice the power of a typical MRI. “The scanner helps us better study brain development and gives us an opportunity to understand brain differences in children,” Lebel explains.

Although MRIs are sometimes scary for young children, Olivia enjoyed going for her scans at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. Lebel’s team tries their best to make it a fun and enjoyable experience for all children the Developmental Neuroimaging Lab. “The kids think it’s so cool that they get to watch movies as their brains are being examined,” says Lebel.

Since the research began in 2013, Lebel’s team has collected almost 500 MRI datasets from 178 children aged two to seven years old. Lebel’s team is interested in how brain maturation is related to cognition and behaviour, and how these relationships may be different in children that are exposed to adversity.

Lebel is a member of the CSM’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

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.