New Pilot Study Aimed at Helping Teens with Depression

Jan 22, 2014, 15:19 ET from Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation

CALGARY, Jan. 22, 2014 /PRNewswire/ - Scientists at the Alberta Children's Hospital and the University of Calgary are teaming up with the YMCA Calgary to study the effect of intensive aerobic activity on brain plasticity and as a potential new therapy for depression in adolescents.

Dr. Frank MacMaster, holder of the Cuthbertson & Fischer Chair in Pediatric Mental Health, will lead the pilot study - a first of its kind in Canada. His research team will work with certified fitness professionals at the YMCA to examine the effect of exercise on the hippocampus - an area of the brain responsible for learning, memory and regulating a person's response to stress. Research has shown that the size of the hippocampus is smaller in people suffering from depression than in those who are not. This pilot will examine whether exercise can increase the size and health of the hippocampus, and consequently reduce depressive symptoms.

"Depression is a major public health problem which often begins in adolescence," says MacMaster who is a researcher with the university's Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute and Hotchkiss Brain Institute. "About 15 percent of teenagers will suffer a major depressive episode. It seriously affects young people's abilities to function within their families, with their friends and at school, and is a major risk factor for suicide - a leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults. Since existing treatments are effective in only half of people who receive them, there is a crucial need for new therapies."

Scientists have been working for decades on how to repair the hippocampus. Studies in animals have shown that intensive exercise strengthens the hippocampus by re-growing and strengthening neuronal connections.   This study will look at whether there are similar benefits for young people.

Study participants between the ages of 16 and 18 years old will engage in a specially-structured exercise protocol that will take place at two YMCA locations: Saddletowne and South Health Campus. An important component of the pilot involves neuroimaging of the hippocampus using the community-funded 3 Tesla Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner (3T MRI) at the Alberta Children's Hospital. This will be carried out pre- and post-exercise.

"I am so pleased that YMCA Calgary has the opportunity to participate in such an innovative partnership," says Shannon Doram, VP Health and Wellness for YMCA Calgary. "The collaborative efforts of academic and recreation experts brings tremendous opportunity to advance community-based solutions for adolescents managing depression. Lessons-learned from this project will inform future programming so that more adolescents have the opportunity to belong, grow, thrive and lead at the YMCA."

"Knowing that mental health issues are among the biggest health problems facing children and young people in Canada today, it's essential that we all work together to find more ways to help those who are suffering," says Saifa Koonar, President and CEO of the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation. "We're pleased that this project will unite researchers, youth-serving organizations like the YMCA and our generous community in creating new options and new hope for families."

The pilot study will involve 30 teenagers suffering from mild to moderate major depressive disorder who have not received treatment for their condition. It is expected to be completed in two years. Questions about the study can be emailed to:

This research is being funded by generous community donations through the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation.

Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation
The Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation raises funds for excellence in child health, research and family centred care. Through the generosity of donors, the Foundation provides funding for innovative programs, state-of-the-art equipment, advanced medical training and internationally-recognized pediatric research. The Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation is a founding partner of the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, as well as the primary funder.

YMCA Calgary
YMCA Calgary is a charity dedicated to building healthy communities. For more than 110 years, YMCA Calgary has been committed to nurturing the potential of children, youth and families, promoting healthy living and fostering social responsibility within the community. For more information, please visit

University of Calgary
The University of Calgary is a leading Canadian university located in the nation's most enterprising city. The university has a clear strategic direction - "Eyes High" - to become one of Canada's top five research universities by 2016, grounded in innovative learning and teaching and fully integrated with the community of Calgary. For more information, visit

Alberta Health Services
Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than four million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.

Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI)
ACHRI is a multi-disciplinary institute of the University of Calgary, Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation. Membership encompasses the faculties of arts, education, kinesiology, medicine, nursing, science, social work and veterinary medicine. ACHRI co-ordinates child and maternal health research from bench to bedside with a vision of giving mothers and children the best health care possible. Working together with an incredible breadth of expertise, the institute members are determined to find the causes of disease, advance medical treatments and prevent illness and injury in children.

Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI)
HBI consists of more than 100 clinicians and scientists who are dedicated to advancing neurological and mental health research and education. The institute's research strengths in foundational neuroscience (axon biology and regeneration, cerebral circulation, neural systems and behaviour) are leading to new treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders, aimed at improving quality of life and patient care. 

SOURCE Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation