Jan. 24, 2024

Collaborations across UCalgary’s campus explore neurodevelopment in novel ways

1st recipients of Azrieli Accelerator Catalyst Grants leverage expertise and partnerships to advance important research
A group of people standing together in front of trees wearing business casual clothing and lanyards
The Arrieta research team is investigating whether gut microbes are causally involved in the neurodevelopment of premature babies. Courtesy Marie Arrieta

From the gut microbiome to the gamification of learning to the impacts of physical activity, the Azrieli Accelerator Catalyst Grants are fuelling new ideas that can lead to greater insights and better outcomes for people with neurodevelopmental conditions like autism and ADHD. 

“The Azrieli Accelerator was created to bring together experts from across UCalgary and tackle important research questions in a way that is collaborative and invites a diversity of perspectives,” says Dr. Susan Graham, scientific director of the Azrieli Accelerator. “This year’s Catalyst Grant recipients show how widespread UCalgary’s expertise is in this area of research.” 

Exploring the gut microbiome in babies

“The Azrieli Accelerator Catalyst Grant is hands-down the only way we can answer our scientific question,” says Dr. Marie-Claire Arrieta, PhD, an associate professor at UCalgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. 

  • The research team, pictured above, from left: Marie Arrieta, Erik Bernardes, Mackenzie Gutierrez, Michelle Asbury, Kaetlyn Phillips, Van Ortega, Thais Glatthardt, and Emily Mercer. 

Her team is investigating whether gut microbes are causally involved in the neurodevelopment of premature babies. Collaborating with the Alberta BLOOM study, they are finding out if the gut microbiome in the intestine of premature babies contributes to how the brain grows and develops in early life. 

“If the answer is yes, we could potentially open groundbreaking opportunities to improve the health and development of infants,” says Arrieta. 

Gamifying learning resources for neurodivergent students 

Bringing together expertise from the Werklund School of Education and the Department of Computer Science, a project led by Dr. Meadow Schroeder, PhD, professor in school and applied psychology, is designing and pilot testing a gamified online tutorial for neurodivergent high school students. 

In collaboration with the University of Manitoba and Foothills Academy, a private school in Alberta for students with learning disabilities, they are exploring groundbreaking intersections between AI and video gaming to support students planning to pursue post-secondary education through the GEARS (Gearing up for Education, Achieving Real-world Success) project. 

“Our research is set to make a real difference for neurodivergent high-school students transitioning to higher education. By providing support for students with learning disabilities and ADHD, we hope to see a better transition and a decrease in mental health concerns that can emerge when students encounter unexpected challenges,” says Schroeder.

A group of people group around a zoom call screen while smiling at the camera

The research team: back row from left: Kevin Sandal, Lauren Goegan, Kartik Budihal, Meadow Schroeder, and Richard Zhao. Front row from left: Talaal Irtija, Avery Keuben and Dominic Caston.

Courtesy Meadow Schroeder

Exploring the impact of physical activity on mental health 

“Mental health problems including depression and anxiety are extremely prevalent among neurodivergent youth,” says Dr. Carolyn Emery, PhD, professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology. With funding from the Azrieli Accelerator, her team is assessing the impact of physical activity on the mental health of neurodiverse youth. 

“Previous research suggests that community-based, adapted physical activity programs may improve mental health among neurodiverse youth,”  she says. 

This study will recruit participants in partnership with the Calgary Adapted Hub (CAH), which links families looking for inclusive and accessible sports and recreation programming to opportunities across the city of Calgary. By exploring how physical activity programs can be an effective tool in reducing mental health problems, this work can inform future programming, reduce barriers, and make mental health supports more accessible for neurodivergent youth. 

“This project would not be possible without support from the Azrieli Accelerator Catalyst Grant program and the transdisciplinary expertise across UCalgary,” adds Emery.

Two boys sit on rolling plates and maneuver themsleved with shortened hockey sticks to play floor hockey

Carolyn Emery's team is exploring the impact that physical activity like roller hockey can have on the mental health of neurodivergent youth.

Courtesy Carolyn Emery

New research ideas fuelled by philanthropy 

The Azrieli Accelerator launched at UCalgary in early 2022, powered by a historic $25 million donation from the Azrieli Foundation. As Canada’s largest public foundation, the Azrieli Foundation has been a philanthropic powerhouse, investing in education, science and health-care initiatives, including many dedicated to neurodevelopmental research and programming. The donation to UCalgary was the Azrieli Foundation’s first in Western Canada, a testament to the scope of expertise housed here. 

The Azrieli Accelerator connects researchers across UCalgary to accelerate research and innovation that impact the lives of people with neurodevelopmental conditions, often diagnosed in childhood but lasting throughout the lifespan. The catalyst grant competition is an annual program for the Azrieli Accelerator, with different areas of emphasis identified each year to support multidisciplinary collaborations and link researchers across UCalgary to make important discoveries together. 

The next round of Catalyst Grants has just opened, and researchers are invited to apply until March 11, 2024. For more information on how to apply, visit the website.

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