Thanks to federal funding, U of R health researchers are able to do the work that helps improve the lives of Canadians.

The Canadian government, through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Project Grant, has awarded more than $3.5 million to University of Regina health researchers. This support will help our scholars to improve the health and well-being of Indigenous children who have disabilities, people living with bipolar disorder, and those experiencing infertility.

Recognizing resilience

First Nations children and youth in Canada report notably higher rates of disability – 30 per cent compared to four per cent of non-First Nations children. Even more distressing is that First Nations children in the care of child welfare agencies have even higher rates of disabilities, with some estimates as high as 40 per cent.

Moreover, children with disabilities tend to access health and mental-health services at significantly higher rates than other children because they often have high rates of co-occurring conditions (e.g., developmental + psychiatric + acute and chronic medical conditions), and high rates of psychological dysfunction and distress.

Dr. Elise Matthews, an associate professor in the Faculty of Nursing and a registered nurse, is building upon a project she’s been leading for three years working with the families of First Nations children with disabilities who face challenges accessing health services and supports in Saskatchewan.

This grant, worth $2,306,475, will allow her to partner with Indigenous children and families in five Cree, Dakota, and Lakota First Nations.

All First Nations children in Canada have the right to timely access to culturally-appropriate health services.

The goal of Matthews’ project, called Recognizing Resilience and Understanding Needs (RRUN): Promoting the Health of Children and Youth with Disabilities in First Nations Communities in Saskatchewan, is to ensure this happens by understanding how community-based cultural supports can improve health and wellness for Indigenous children with disabilities This initiative also recognizes the pressing need to increase access to services and improve prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatment of disabilities among First Nations children and youth.

Cultural and community practices and supports are important sources of health, well-being and resilience for First Nations children, youth and families. This community-led project will draw upon this by gathering knowledge about the experiences of First Nations children and their families, and Indigenous practices and teachings about disability, health, and healing. The research team will identify individual and community assets, needs, and priorities for culturally-informed supports. The team will use Indigenous and Western methods, including conversations, sharing circles, community gatherings, tipi teachings, ceremonies, arts, music, and land-based activities.

Community members, leaders, and Elders, along with Indigenous and non- Indigenous scholars and health professionals will work together to share, preserve, and generate knowledge, and create culturally-informed and responsive disability resources and programs for children and families, to support and enhance their well-being and quality of life.

Mighty mitochondria and bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness that affects more than one per cent of the global population. It’s the fourth leading cause of disability amongst ten to 24-year-olds. Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings that alternate between manic episodes and depression.

But, what causes bipolar disorder, and what, if anything, can be done about it?

Current evidence suggests that mitochondria are implicated in the disorder. Mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells, turn the energy from the food we eat into energy the cells can use. Research has shown that people with bipolar disorder have abnormal or unhealthy mitochondrial function.

Dr. Mohan Babu is trying to discover what causes bipolar disorder and what can be done about it. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)
Dr. Mohan Babu is trying to discover what causes bipolar disorder and what can be done about it. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

Dr. Mohan Babu, a professor in chemistry and biochemistry, was awarded $940,950 for his project, Deciphering Mitochondrial Interplay in Bipolar Disorder. By delving further into these cellular powerhouses, Babu aims to provide important answers to those questions – with the goal of helping those who suffering from this pervasive disorder.

Mood stabilizers and antidepressants show potential for improving bipolar-disorder. Existing evidence suggests that most of those drugs work by improving mitochondrial functions. But how they work in restoring mitochondrial function to a healthy state is not well understood. And while these findings reveal a link between mitochondrial impairment and bipolar disorder, determining the underlying molecular connection for effective treatment options requires a deeper dive into how unhealthy mitochondria proteins are connected in someone with bipolar disorder, along with how well these drugs actually restore the unhealthy mitochondrial proteins to a healthy state.

To do this, Babu and his team will use state-of-the-art cell cultures, biochemical, and genetic screening experiments to address these knowledge gaps. Once they’ve determined how impaired mitochondria contribute to bipolar disorder, their research has the potential to pharmacologically target mitochondria, ultimately helping to alleviate the manic and depressive episodes caused by bipolar disorder.

Help for the burden of infertility

Defined as the inability to achieve pregnancy despite 12 or more months of focused attempts to conceive, infertility impacts one in six couples. While infertility can be caused by either partner in an opposite-sex relationship, fertility treatments are nearly always more burdensome for women. They involve frequent ultrasounds, daily self-injections, and invasive, and painful procedures.

Women also carry a disproportionate share of the psychological burden associated with infertility.

Studies suggest that 30 to 40 per cent of women who are evaluated for infertility report that they experience clinically significant depression or anxiety. Quality of life and levels of depression and anxiety among women undergoing fertility treatments have been found to be similar to those of individuals undergoing cancer treatments. And yet, for a large majority of women across Canada, access to infertility-specific mental-health resources is extremely limited, while the psychological interventions that are available have been proven to be largely ineffective for infertility-related distress.

This leaves an enormous gap for this large population.

Dr. Jennifer Gordon was awarded $267,749 for project entitled Testing an Evidence-Based Self-Help Program for Infertility-Related Distress to increase the effectiveness and accessibility of mental-health resources for this population.

In collaboration with women who have personal experience with infertility, Gordon has developed a seven-week self-help program aimed at reducing distress related to infertility. Recently tested in a small pilot study, her program was found to be very effective in reducing psychological distress among individuals struggling to get pregnant.

The purpose of this new research study is to test the program with a larger sample of women and compare it to a control group.

Dr. Jennifer Gordon is working to increase the effectiveness and accessibility of mental-health resources for women facing infertility.  population. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)
Dr. Jennifer Gordon is working to increase the effectiveness and accessibility of mental-health resources for women facing infertility. population. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

Gordon and her team will then examine its effects on quality of life, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and relationship quality. If this program proves to be effective in improving psychological well-being in this randomized trial, Gordon will make this much-needed program widely and freely available to women throughout Canada and the world.