Dr. Sarah Treit is currently appointed in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta. Dr. Treit is making important strides with her research to better understand FASD. Her study on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of brain development of children with FASD revealed delayed development of white matter (brain ‘wiring’) and cortical grey matter maturation. This delayed development can contribute to explaining why behaviour in adolescents often worsens as they grow up. In a separate study of children, adolescents, and adults with FASD, she found greater reductions in brain volume among males than females with FASD, despite similar impairments in cognition – suggesting that prenatal alcohol exposure may affect brain structure differently in males compared to females. Dr. Treit was one of the recipients of the 2017 Sterling Clarren Research Award.
Can you speak briefly on your main area(s) of research?
My research uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine brain structure in children, adolescents, and adults with FASD. The main goals of my research are to determine: i) how brain structure differs in this population; ii) if there are differences in the way the brain develops with age in children who were prenatally exposed to alcohol; and iii) if boys and girls are affected differently.
What sparked your interest in FASD research?
During my undergraduate degree in Psychology I began working with children with Autism, which really sparked my interest in developmental disabilities and childhood mental health. Going into graduate school, I wanted to combine this with an interest in brain imaging to understand how brain structure and behaviour come together. From a scientific perspective, I think FASD presents a particularly interesting case because unlike many other developmental disorders, we actually know the cause— we can even model it with some degree of precision in animal models, yet we see a huge diversity of outcomes. This huge variability stems not just from differences in timing, dose, and other exposure factors, but from the interaction all of these factors have with other environmental and genetic variables. Understanding how this all adds up to produce differences in brain structure and thus behaviour is critical to our understanding of not just FASD, but brain development in general.
Have you seen your research translated into action in your province? If so, how? How do you hope your research will impact those affected by FASD?
My research falls into the category of basic science/discovery research that takes many years to become something that can be put into action for people with FASD in Alberta. That said, this type of research should be thought of as the building blocks for discoveries that will down the road directly impact people. The more we understand about how brain development is affected by prenatal alcohol exposure, the more we can do to help those who have been affected. A better understanding of deviations in brain structure and function will help tailor everything from drug development to behavioural intervention, as well as provide a better scientific understanding of how FASD is structurally similar (or dissimilar) to other developmental disabilities. In addition, this work provides concrete objective evidence of structural brain anomalies in children with prenatal alcohol exposure.
What has been your most significant research finding?
I would say that my most significant findings came out of my longitudinal MRI study, in which I scanned the same group of kids with FASD several years apart (Treit et al 2013 J Neuro; Treit et al 2014 HBM). This work demonstrated two key concepts: that brain development continues to unfold at a different rate in children with FASD relative to healthy controls many years after the initial in-utero exposure, but importantly also that brain development is nonetheless occurring. This is an important reminder that the brain has a great capacity for plasticity and change, and provides hope for the possibility for “catching up” of delays in early childhood.
Find out more about Dr.Treit’s research here.