Featured Research

The University of Calgary is home to many dedicated researchers studying child and adolescent mental health. 

Check out some of their recent work:

Genetic Risk Factor for OCD  

Dr. Paul Arnold’s research team focuses on genetics and neurobiology of childhood OCD and related neuropsychiatric disorders. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a relatively common (1-2% of the population) psychiatric disorder with up to 50% of patients experiencing symptoms that start in childhood. Researchers have known for a while that OCD runs in families, but they have now discovered a specific gene known as PTPRD which is significantly associated with OCD traits. 5000 kids participated in this study which used the Toronto Obsessive-Compulsive Scale (TOCS) to screen for OCD associated traits and a sample saliva for DNA. 

Check out the full study.

Identifying Gene-Drug Pairs for Pharmacogenetic Testing 

Dr. Chad Bousman’s research aims to discover, develop, and evaluate genetic-based tools to inform clinical decision-making and improve mental health outcomes. 


Prescription drugs play an important role in treatment of mental health and other medical conditions. However, prescription drugs do not always work the same for every person and can have side effects. Therefore, researchers and clinicians can use pharmacogenetic testing to predict how someone will respond to a drug. The test uses a genetic sample (usually a saliva sample) to look at specific genes which help predict if a medication is likely to work well and safely in a patient.


This study examined a database with information on drugs prescribed and dispensed in Alberta. They looked at 57 medications from 2012-2016 to identify gene-drug pairs that could benefit from pharmacogenetic testing here in Alberta.

Check out the full study.

Better Prescribing for Adolescents with Autism

Dr. Carly McMorris is a clinical-developmental psychologist with a research focus on improving the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.  Dr. Chad Bousman’s research aims to discover, develop, and evaluate genetic-based tools to inform clinical decision-making and improve mental health outcomes. 


Adolescents with autism are more likely to have more complex mental health concerns and additional diagnoses of psychiatric disorders than neurotypical adolescents. This often leads to adolescents with autism taking multiple medications including high-risk psychiatric medications. Dr. McMorris and Dr. Bousman worked together to review some of the current challenges with prescribing psychiatric medications for adolescents with autism. In this article, they discuss the benefits of testing for specific genes that can help predict a patient’s response to a drug to address some of these challenges.

Check out their findings.

Changes in Symptoms from a Clinical High-risk State to Psychosis

Dr. Jean Addington is a researcher, clinician, and educator with a focus on finding predictors, understanding the progression, and determining the appropriate treatments of serious mental illness, in particular psychosis. 

Youth at clinical high-risk for developing psychosis experience symptoms such as unusual thoughts, being suspicious of others, a strong sense of being important, perceptual abnormalities (for example, experiencing things that are not there), and they may communicate in an unorganized way. Some of these youth may go on to transition to psychosis, which means that at least one of these symptoms becomes more severe. Although it is known that symptoms get more severe from the clinical high-risk state to a full-blown psychosis state, not much is known about how the subject matter, or content, of these symptoms might change.


In this study, Dr. Addington’s research team looked at symptom content of youth that were at clinical high-risk of developing psychosis, and then transitioned to psychosis. They observed content of symptoms changing in 2 ways: (1) symptoms in the clinical high-risk state were less clear, or undefined, and patients were unsure about why they were experiencing these symptoms. Later, in the psychosis state, symptoms were more clear and participants were convinced about why they were experiencing symptoms and that they were happening. (2) A new symptom was experienced for the first time when participants transitioned to psychosis.


Check out the full study.

Suicidality in Children and Youth with Autism

Dr. Carly McMorris is a Child Clinical Psychologist with a research focus on improving the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.  


Individuals with autism experience suicidal thoughts and behaviours far more than individuals without autism, resulting in a seven times greater risk of death by suicide. It is not well understood why suicidal behaviour is so common among individuals with autism.


This paper reviewed the literature and found that there is no valid, reliable, commonly used tool to assess suicidality in children and youth with autism. These findings highlight the urgent need for research to develop or adapt existing tools that assess for suicidality in children and youth with autism.


Check out the full study.

Mental Health and Mindfulness

Dr. Daniel Kopala-Sibley’s research focuses on the influence of developmental experiences such as parenting, peers, and life stress on changes in personality and brain functioning in youth. He examines how these factors interact to influence risk for depressive and anxiety disorders.

There are five personality traits that have been widely studied for their vulnerability to mental illness. These Big Five traits are (1) extraversion, (2) agreeableness, (3) openness, (4) conscientiousness, and (5) neuroticism. Recent research has examined an additional trait that is related to the Big Five traits, mindfulness, and how it is associated with mental illness and psychological well-being. Mindfulness is defined as non-judgemental awareness and openness to present experiences.


This study collected questionnaires about mental health, mindfulness and the Big Five personality traits from 131 adolescents who had a parent with a history of mood or anxiety disorders. They found a relationship between higher mindfulness scores and fewer mental health problems along with other significant findings about mindfulness and mental health.


Check out the full study.

Measuring Value in Youth Mental Health Services

Dr. Jennifer Zwicker is a health policy researcher with broad research interests in the impact of health and social policy on health outcomes, particularly for youth with disabilities and their families. Dr. Maria Santana’s research focus is on health policy and developing novel methods to advance person-centered care and patient-oriented research.


In this article, Dr. Zwicker and Dr. Santana outline the need for measuring the value of current and future youth mental health services from the patient’s perspective. They propose the use of patient-reported outcome measures, also known as PROMs, in youth mental health services across Alberta to track patient’s self-reported health and well-being. This information can be used to evaluate different youth mental health sites, services, or treatments over time to ultimately improve service quality and outcomes for youth and their families.


Check out the full article.

Microbiome Influences on Neurodivergent Brain Development (MINDDful-XD)

Dr. Davide Martino is a Professor and Director of the Movement Disorders Program at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary. His multidisciplinary research program is focused on the identification of endophenotypic and biological markers for the subtyping of complex movement disorders, primarily  tic and other neurodevelopmental disorders, Parkinson’s disease and dystonia.


This study aims to understand the connection between the digestive system and some brain-related conditions. The tiny organisms living in the digestive system, called gut microbiota. The gut microbiota might be linked to certain conditions such as Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Tourette Syndrome (TS).

These conditions can be affected by both genetics and the environment. The gut microbiota can affect how the immune system grows. It also affects how the brain develops and functions trough a pathway called the gut-brain axis. The MINDDful-XD team aims to see if there is a link between these conditions and the gut microbiota. They hope this research will lead to new ways to support children and their families.

The MINDDful-XD team are currently looking for interested families in Alberta who have a child between 3 to 18 years old with one of the mentioned conditions. Siblings are welcome too. The whole study can be done from home. You will get a kit to collect a sample of your child’s stool, then you will complete some online questionnaires. Finally, you will have a short phone chat with a neurologist. Each child will get a $60 gift-card when he/she completes the study.


Check out the full study.