A team of researchers and health workers in Quebec City is trying to detect serious mental illness in children in hopes of helping thousands who are at risk.

The aim is to try and catch mental illness early, paving the way to better health.

The test involves measuring the electrical signals generated by the retina in a biological test called an electroretinogram, or ERG for short.             

“The eye is recognized as part of the brain, an extension of the brain but it's pretty isolated from the brain, so you can measure directly instead of looking in the brain,” explained neuroscientist Marc Hebert, of the University Institute of Mental Health of Quebec.

In poetic terms, the eyes are a window to the soul: In science, the eyes appear to be a window to the brain.

“It seems to be a mirror of what's going on in the brain,” said Hebert.

For children who have a parent with a mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, that may mean their brain is displaying signs they are at risk of illness themselves.

Already validated in diagnosed adults, the ERG will now be tested on children.

In order to reach those children and siblings at risk, however, the mental health services in the Quebec City area need to be made more accessible.

“This is a premiere at the world level, to translate almost in real time the findings we have into the population at risk,” said Dr. Michel Maziade, a child psychiatrist.

Two donors have announced their support for the creation of the Hope project.

“We want to take care of the clients that are the most fragile and mental health is a real issue,” said Lucie Tremblay, president of the Quebec Order of Nurses; its foundation is contributing $250,000.

Bell, CTV's parent company, is also donating $1 million as part of its Bell Let’s Talk initiative.

The project has broad benefits, said Maziade.

“Instead of just having this child into follow up and treatment we will focus on the whole family,” he said.