Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Catherine Lebel

University of Calgary

Research Focus

Catherine Lebel’s work focuses on understanding typical and atypical structural and functional brain development across childhood. Her work combines psychology, neuroscience, physics, and engineering to identify sensitive periods of brain development, understand how brain development underlies emerging cognitive functions, and to elucidate the role of environmental factors. Her research focuses on longitudinal data to measure brain development within individuals, in order to better understand individual differences. Ultimately, her work aims to inform interventions with the overarching goal of supporting children in optimal brain and cognitive development.

My plans for the fellowship period

During my fellowship, I will investigate the early neurological roots of reading difficulties and how brain-reading relationships are affected by environmental factors. My research will leverage two ongoing studies: one in Calgary, Canada (led by myself), and the other in Cape Town, South Africa (led by Dr. Kirsten Donald). Both studies collected maternal data during pregnancy (substance use, mental health, etc.), and neuroimaging on the children at multiple points in early childhood. Data collection in both cohorts is ongoing. In these two cohorts, I will use advanced imaging measures of brain structure in early childhood to determine the neurological correlates of reading and pre-reading skills.

First, I will use neuroimaging techniques to determine which features of brain structure in young children are most strongly associated with emerging reading skills, and which of these features predict later reading difficulties. Then, I will examine specific environmental factors (prenatal exposure to alcohol, family income, parent education) to determine whether and how these factors change relationships between brain structure and reading skills in young children.

With this work, I hope to identify sensitive periods of brain development during which interventions may be most effective and determine how environmental factors may make children more vulnerable to learning difficulties. This will enable future studies to develop and assess interventions to improve language/reading skills in young children and ultimately help them reach their full potential.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

My interdisciplinary work uses sophisticated MRI techniques and cognitive assessments to detail maturation within individuals, and understand how brain structure and brain development are related to emerging reading skills in early childhood. This work will help identify sensitive periods of brain development during which interventions may be most effective. My work will also determine how environmental factors may make children more vulnerable to learning difficulties. Together, these projects will provide critical information to enable future studies to develop and assess interventions to improve language/reading skills in young children. By providing the right interventions to the right individual at the right time, we can ultimately support each child to reach their full potential.

The international collaboration with Dr. Donald strengthens the global relevance of this work, to ultimately have a larger impact on children.