Jan. 26, 2022

Introducing the Azrieli Accelerator: transforming neurodevelopment research across the lifespan

A $25-million gift from the Azrieli Foundation will drive research that will change the lives of children, teens, and adults

When Kate McGuire was four, she became increasingly afraid to participate in everyday experiences. That turned washing her hands or playing in her bedroom into terrifying events.

“Kate was panicked about everything from our house burning down to a drop of water splashing on her,” says her mother, Kristina. Kate was diagnosed with autism — as are one in 66 children in Canada.

Neurodevelopmental disabilities (NDDs) are a significant life challenge for families around the globe. NDDs include conditions such as autism and ADHD and affect up to 17 per cent of Canadian children. Most often diagnosed in childhood, the challenges faced by individuals with NDDs, and their families, affect their health, social, academic, and economic well-being into adulthood, with long-term implications for overall quality of life.

Kate was eventually referred to Facing Your Fears, an intervention program for youth with autism who need help learning to manage their anxiety. For Kate and her family, it was a game-changer. That program (offered in partnership between UCalgary, Alberta Health Services, and funded by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation) is in urgent demand for individuals seeking help to mitigate the devastating effects of their conditions.

Kate McGuire

For Kate McGuire and her family, the Facing Your Fears program was a game-changer.

McGuire family

A $25-million gift to the University of Calgary from the Azrieli Foundation will establish the Azrieli Accelerator, which will transform neurodevelopment research across the lifespan. The potential for further impact is possible with up to $5 million of the gift designated as matching funds.

The Azrieli Accelerator will impact the present and future health of our communities by expanding and deepening our researchers’ understanding of brain development and disabilities. It will fuel transformative research to tackle the challenging questions that address everything from neurobiology to quality of life. The subsequent research and knowledge translation will be shared with the community through interventions and supports for neurodiverse individuals and their families.  

UCalgary a leader in neurodevelopment research

UCalgary is already a long-established global research leader in neurodevelopment, known for excellence in research regarding brain and mental health, and child health and wellness. The new Azrieli Accelerator will drive further understanding of neurodevelopmental disabilities and accelerate interdisciplinary research leading to groundbreaking therapies and programs.

The Azrieli Foundation is the largest non-corporate foundation in Canada; this is its first significant investment in Western Canada. Naomi Azrieli, DPhil, chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation, says she and her family are “honoured to make this $25-million donation to the University of Calgary.” The Foundation believes that research and breaking down the silos between research teams “is key to advancing science and to unlocking the mysteries of the brain. The translational aspect of this research means that thousands of people will benefit from these discoveries.”

After a nationwide review, the Foundation chose UCalgary because, says Azrieli, “UCalgary does excellent work — and we reward excellence.” Indeed, she says the foundation and her family were drawn to UCalgary’s “combination of specialists, world-class researchers in multiple fields, an institutional philosophy of thinking outside traditional academic silos, and the power to effectively implement innovative initiatives.”

UCalgary and Azrieli Foundation bring holistic approach

With the Accelerator’s support, UCalgary researchers will address critical questions related to biological and environmental influences on brain development, with a focus on brain circuits and the influence of the microbiome. Developing new interventions and transformations in health care for neurodiverse individuals and their families will change the present and future health of our communities. UCalgary and the Azrieli Foundation agree a holistic approach — one that invites contributions from people both inside and outside of the medical system and research labs — is required to bring progress to the individuals and families who need it.

Dr. Susan Graham, PhD, has been appointed the inaugural scientific director of the Azrieli Accelerator. She leads the Owerko Centre at UCalgary and is a world leader in language and cognitive development in children.

This tremendous and generous gift from the Azrieli Foundation will allow us to transform neurodevelopment research across the lifespan and let us take our recognized research in neurodevelopment to the next level,” says Graham, a professor of psychology at UCalgary.

The Accelerator will help us drive impact for more children, teens, and adults in our community, and across the world, living with neurodevelopmental disabilities.

“The Azrieli Foundation supports excellence and recognizes the importance of collaborative research among our scholars,” says President and Vice-Chancellor Ed McCauley, adding the funding provided by the Azrieli Accelerator will allow research teams to hit the ground running on big, bold projects that will pull together teams from multiple disciplines — ranging from medical and social sciences to technology and policy — to think about neurodevelopmental disabilities and neurodiversity in a holistic way.

“Thanks to this generous gift from the Azrieli Foundation, we will develop new collaborations across UCalgary,” says McCauley. “The Accelerator will bring experts from a number of disciplines together to learn from each other to expand our understanding of where and how we can have the biggest impact for the individuals and families living with neurodevelopmental disabilities. This work will span fundamental research in labs to changes in care and community settings. Advancing research with impact is our main focus.”

Kate is now 12 years old. For her and her family, research-fuelled therapy changed everything.

“Kate is wonderfully unique,” says Kristina. “But,” she adds with palpable relief, “she’s no longer a mystery to us.”

The Azrieli Accelerator will transform neurodevelopment research across the lifespan through collaborative and transdisciplinary teams committed to improving the lives of all those affected by neurodevelopmental disabilities. This new initiative — made possible by the Azrieli Foundation — will enhance collaborations across the university, in the community and throughout the global network. It builds upon the university’s more than 50-year history of advancing related research, which has been supported by transformative investments by government, community partners and generous philanthropists, including the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation; the Owerko, Cumming, Hotchkiss, Snyder, Mathison and Fenwick families; and many others.

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