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allopregnanolone molecule

Autism spectrum disorder risk linked to insufficient placental steroid

allopregnanolone molecule

A study led by Children’s National Hospital and presented during Neuroscience 2019 finds that loss of allopregnanolone, a key hormone supplied by the placenta, leads to long-term structural alterations of the cerebellum – a brain region essential for smooth motor coordination, balance and social cognition – and increases the risk of developing autism.

An experimental model study suggests that allopregnanolone, one of many hormones produced by the placenta during pregnancy, is so essential to normal fetal brain development that when provision of that hormone decreases – as occurs with premature birth – offspring are more likely to develop autism-like behaviors, a Children’s National Hospital research team reports at the Neuroscience 2019 annual meeting.

“To our knowledge, no other research team has studied how placental allopregnanolone (ALLO) contributes to brain development and long-term behaviors,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead author. “Our study finds that targeted loss of ALLO in the womb leads to long-term structural alterations of the cerebellum – a brain region that is essential for motor coordination, balance and social cognition ­– and increases the risk of developing autism,” Vacher says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 infants is born preterm, before 37 weeks gestation; and 1 in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder.

In addition to presenting the abstract, on Monday, Oct. 21, Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., the abstract’s senior author, will discuss the research with reporters during a Neuroscience 2019 news conference. This Children’s National abstract is among 14,000 abstracts submitted for the meeting, the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

ALLO production by the placenta rises in the second trimester of pregnancy, and levels of the neurosteroid peak as fetuses approach full term.

To investigate what happens when ALLO supplies are disrupted, a research team led by Children’s National created a novel transgenic preclinical model in which they deleted a gene essential in ALLO synthesis. When production of ALLO in the placentas of these experimental models declines, offspring had permanent neurodevelopmental changes in a sex- and region-specific manner.

“From a structural perspective, the most pronounced cerebellar abnormalities appeared in the cerebellum’s white matter,” Vacher adds. “We found increased thickness of the myelin, a lipid-rich insulating layer that protects nerve fibers. From a behavioral perspective, male offspring whose ALLO supply was abruptly reduced exhibited increased repetitive behavior and sociability deficits – two hallmarks in humans of autism spectrum disorder.”

On a positive note, providing a single ALLO injection during pregnancy was enough to avert both the cerebellar abnormalities and the aberrant social behaviors.

The research team is now launching a new area of research focus they call “neuroplacentology” to better understand the role of placenta function on fetal and newborn brain development.

“Our team’s data provide exciting new evidence that underscores the importance of placental hormones on shaping and programming the developing fetal brain,” Vacher notes.

  • Neuroscience 2019 presentation
    Sunday, Oct. 20, 9:30 a.m. (CDT)
    “Preterm ASD risk linked to cerebellar white matter changes”
    Claire-Marie Vacher, lead author; Sonia Sebaoui, co-author; Helene Lacaille, co-author; Jackie Salzbank, co-author; Jiaqi O’Reilly, co-author; Diana Bakalar, co-author; Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Anna Penn, M.D., clinical neonatologist and developmental neuroscientist and senior author.
Claire Marie Vacher

Placental function linked to brain injuries associated with autism

Claire Marie Vacher

“We saw long-term cerebellar white matter alterations in male experimental models, and behavioral testing revealed social impairments and increased repetitive behaviors, two hallmark features of ASD,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead study author.

Allopregnanolone (ALLO), a hormone made by the placenta late in pregnancy, is such a potent neurosteroid that disrupting its steady supply to the developing fetus can leave it vulnerable to brain injuries associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

In order to more effectively treat vulnerable babies, the Children’s research team first had to tease out what goes wrong in the careful choreography that is pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 babies is born preterm, before 37 weeks of gestation. Premature birth is a major risk factor for ASD.

The placenta is an essential and understudied organ that is shared by the developing fetus and the pregnant mother, delivering oxygen, glucose and nutrients and ferrying out waste products. The placenta also delivers ALLO, a progesterone derivative, needed to ready the developing fetal brain for life outside the womb.

ALLO ramps up late in gestation. When babies are born prematurely, their supply of ALLO stops abruptly. That occurs at the same time the cerebellum – a brain region essential for motor coordination, posture, balance and social cognition– typically undergoes a dramatic growth spurt.

“Our experimental model demonstrates that losing placental ALLO alters cerebellar development, including white matter development,” says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the divisions of Neonatology and Fetal Medicine, and a developmental neuroscientist at Children’s National. “Cerebellar white matter development occurs primarily after babies are born, so connecting a change in placental function during pregnancy with lingering impacts on later brain development is a particularly striking result.”

The research team created a novel experimental model in which the gene encoding the enzyme responsible for producing ALLO is deleted in the placenta. They compared these preclinical models with a control group and performed whole brain imaging and RNAseq gene expression analyses for both groups.

“We saw long-term cerebellar white matter alterations in male experimental models, and behavioral testing revealed social impairments and increased repetitive behaviors, two hallmark features of ASD,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead study author. “These male-specific outcomes parallel the increased risk of brain injury and ASD we see in human babies born prematurely.”

ALLO binds to specific GABA receptors, which control most inhibitory signaling in the nervous system.

“Our findings provide a new way to frame poor placental function: Subtle but significant changes in utero may set in motion neurodevelopmental disorders that children experience later in life,” adds Dr. Penn, the study’s senior author. “Future directions for our research could include identifying new targets in the placenta or brain that could be amenable to hormone supplementation, opening the potential for earlier treatment for high-risk fetuses.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Placental allopregnanolone loss alters postnatal cerebellar development and function.”
    • Sunday, April 28, 2019, 5:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (EST)

Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead author; Jackie Salzbank, co-author; Helene Lacaille, co-author; Dana Bakalar, co-author; Jiaqi O’Reilly, co-author; and Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the divisions of Neonatology and Fetal Medicine, developmental neuroscientist and senior study author.

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Research and Education Week honors innovative science

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Billie Lou Short, M.D., received the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Clinical Science.

People joke that Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of Children’s Division of Neonatology, invented extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, known as ECMO for short. While Dr. Short did not invent ECMO, under her leadership Children’s National was the first pediatric hospital to use it. And over decades Children’s staff have perfected its use to save the lives of tiny, vulnerable newborns by temporarily taking over for their struggling hearts and lungs. For two consecutive years, Children’s neonatal intensive care unit has been named the nation’s No. 1 for newborns by U.S. News & World Report. “Despite all of these accomplishments, Dr. Short’s best legacy is what she has done as a mentor to countless trainees, nurses and faculty she’s touched during their careers. She touches every type of clinical staff member who has come through our neonatal intensive care unit,” says An Massaro, M.D., director of residency research.

For these achievements, Dr. Short received the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Clinical Science.

Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., has provided new insights into the central role that the placental hormone allopregnanolone plays in orderly fetal brain development, and her research team has created novel experimental models that mimic some of the brain injuries often seen in very preterm babies – an essential step that informs future neuroprotective strategies. Dr. Penn, a clinical neonatologist and developmental neuroscientist, “has been a primary adviser for 40 mentees throughout their careers and embodies Children’s core values of Compassion, Commitment and Connection,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D.

For these achievements, Dr. Penn was selected to receive the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Basic and Translational Science.

The mentorship awards for Drs. Short and Penn were among dozens of honors given in conjunction with “Frontiers in Innovation,” the Ninth Annual Research and Education Week (REW) at Children’s National. In addition to seven keynote lectures, more than 350 posters were submitted from researchers – from high-school students to full-time faculty – about basic and translational science, clinical research, community-based research, education, training and quality improvement; five poster presenters were showcased via Facebook Live events hosted by Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Two faculty members won twice: Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for research about mindfulness-based stress reduction and Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for research related to HIV. So many women at every stage of their research careers took to the stage to accept honors that Naomi L.C. Luban, M.D., Vice Chair of Academic Affairs, quipped that “this day is power to women.”

Here are the 2019 REW award winners:

2019 Elda Y. Arce Teaching Scholars Award
Barbara Jantausch, M.D.
Lowell Frank, M.D.

Suzanne Feetham, Ph.D., FAA, Nursing Research Support Award
Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for “Psychosocial and biological effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in adolescents with CHD/CIEDs: a randomized control trial”
Renee’ Roberts Turner for “Peak and nadir experiences of mid-level nurse leaders”

2019-2020 Global Health Initiative Exploration in Global Health Awards
Nathalie Quion, M.D., for “Latino youth and families need assessment,” conducted in Washington
Sonia Voleti for “Handheld ultrasound machine task shifting,” conducted in Micronesia
Tania Ahluwalia, M.D., for “Simulation curriculum for emergency medicine,” conducted in India
Yvonne Yui for “Designated resuscitation teams in NICUs,” conducted in Ghana
Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., MBBS, MSc, “Prevention of hospital-onset infections in PICUs,” conducted in China

Ninth Annual Research and Education Week Poster Session Awards

Basic and Translational Science
Faculty:
Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for “Differences in the gut microbiome of HIV-infected versus HIV-exposed, uninfected infants”
Faculty: Hayk Barseghyan, Ph.D., for “Composite de novo Armenian human genome assembly and haplotyping via optical mapping and ultra-long read sequencing”
Staff: Damon K. McCullough, BS, for “Brain slicer: 3D-printed tissue processing tool for pediatric neuroscience research”
Staff: Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., for “Integrated deep-learning method for genetic syndrome screening using facial photographs”
Post docs/fellows/residents: Lung Lau, M.D., for “A novel, sprayable and bio-absorbable sealant for wound dressings”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Kelsey F. Sugrue, Ph.D., for “HECTD1 is required for growth of the myocardium secondary to placental insufficiency”
Graduate students:
Erin R. Bonner, BA, for “Comprehensive mutation profiling of pediatric diffuse midline gliomas using liquid biopsy”
High school/undergraduate students: Ali Sarhan for “Parental somato-gonadal mosaic genetic variants are a source of recurrent risk for de novo disorders and parental health concerns: a systematic review of the literature and meta-analysis”

Clinical Research
Faculty:
Amy Hont, M.D., for “Ex vivo expanded multi-tumor antigen specific T-cells for the treatment of solid tumors”
Faculty: Lauren McLaughlin, M.D., for “EBV/LMP-specific T-cells maintain remissions of T- and B-cell EBV lymphomas after allogeneic bone marrow transplantation”

Staff: Iman A. Abdikarim, BA, for “Timing of allergenic food introduction among African American and Caucasian children with food allergy in the FORWARD study”
Staff: Gelina M. Sani, BS, for “Quantifying hematopoietic stem cells towards in utero gene therapy for treatment of sickle cell disease in fetal cord blood”
Post docs/fellows/residents: Amy H. Jones, M.D., for “To trach or not trach: exploration of parental conflict, regret and impacts on quality of life in tracheostomy decision-making”
Graduate students: Alyssa Dewyer, BS, for “Telemedicine support of cardiac care in Northern Uganda: leveraging hand-held echocardiography and task-shifting”
Graduate students: Natalie Pudalov, BA, “Cortical thickness asymmetries in MRI-abnormal pediatric epilepsy patients: a potential metric for surgery outcome”
High school/undergraduate students:
Kia Yoshinaga for “Time to rhythm detection during pediatric cardiac arrest in a pediatric emergency department”

Community-Based Research
Faculty:
Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for “Recent trends in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area”
Staff: Gia M. Badolato, MPH, for “STI screening in an urban ED based on chief complaint”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Christina P. Ho, M.D., for “Pediatric urinary tract infection resistance patterns in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area”
Graduate students:
Noushine Sadeghi, BS, “Racial/ethnic disparities in receipt of sexual health services among adolescent females”

Education, Training and Program Development
Faculty:
Cara Lichtenstein, M.D., MPH, for “Using a community bus trip to increase knowledge of health disparities”
Staff:
Iana Y. Clarence, MPH, for “TEACHing residents to address child poverty: an innovative multimodal curriculum”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Johanna Kaufman, M.D., for “Inpatient consultation in pediatrics: a learning tool to improve communication”
High school/undergraduate students:
Brett E. Pearson for “Analysis of unanticipated problems in CNMC human subjects research studies and implications for process improvement”

Quality and Performance Improvement
Faculty:
Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for “Implementing a mindfulness-based stress reduction curriculum in a congenital heart disease program”
Staff:
Caleb Griffith, MPH, for “Assessing the sustainability of point-of-care HIV screening of adolescents in pediatric emergency departments”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Rebecca S. Zee, M.D., Ph.D., for “Implementation of the Accelerated Care of Torsion (ACT) pathway: a quality improvement initiative for testicular torsion”
Graduate students:
Alysia Wiener, BS, for “Latency period in image-guided needle bone biopsy in children: a single center experience”

View images from the REW2019 award ceremony.

Anna Penn

Protecting the fetal brain from harm

Anna Penn

Ongoing placental dysfunction and allopregnanolone loss, not the increase that was expected due to stress, may alter cortical development in complicated pregnancies and put babies at risk, says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D.

Researchers long have known that allopregnanolone (ALLO), a derivative of the hormone progesterone, is produced in adults’ brains during times of acute stress and modulates how easily the brain’s neurons fire. ALLO also is produced in the placenta during fetal development, one of more than 200 different hormones that each uniquely contribute to fostering a smooth pregnancy and maintaining a fetus’ overall health. Although ALLO is thought to protect the developing brain in pregnancies complicated by conditions that might harm it, such as high blood pressure, how its levels evolve during pregnancy and in newborns shortly after birth has remained unknown.

Now, a new study presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) 2018 annual meeting suggests that the placenta ramps up ALLO production over the second trimester, peaking just as fetuses approach full term.

To investigate this phenomenon, Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist/neuroscientist at Children’s National Health System, and colleagues created a designer experimental model to study how premature loss of ALLO alters orderly brain development. Knowing more about the interplay between ALLO and normal development of the cortex, the outer layer of the cerebrum, is a first step that could lead to strategies to rescue this vital brain region.

“The cortex is basically the brain’s command-and-control center for higher functions. In our experimental model, it develops from the middle of gestation through to the end of gestation. If ALLO levels are disrupted just as these cells are being born, neurons migrating to the cortex are altered and the developing neural network is compromised,” says Dr. Penn, senior author of the research presented at PAS 2018. “We’re concerned this same phenomenon occurs in human infants whose preterm birth disrupts their supply of this essential hormone.”

To better understand the human placental hormone pattern, the research team analyzed cord blood or serum samples collected within the first 36 hours of life for 61 preterm newborns born between 24 to 36 gestational weeks. They compared those preemie samples with samples drawn from 61 newborns carried to term who were matched by race, gender, size for gestational age, delivery method and maternal demographics.

They used liquid-chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry, a technique that can precisely analyze trace levels of compounds, to compare levels of 27 different steroids, including ALLO and its precursors as well as better-known adrenal gland hormones, such as cortisol and 17-Hydroxyprogesterone.

“Pregnancies complicated by hypertension tended to correlate with lower ALLO levels, though this finding did not reach statistical significance. This suggests that ongoing placental dysfunction and ALLO loss, not the increase that we expected to be caused by stress, may alter cortical development in these pregnancies and put babies at risk,” Dr. Penn adds. “In addition, having the largest neonatal sample set to date in which multiple steroid hormones have been measured can provide insight into the shifting hormone patterns that occur around 36 weeks gestation, just prior to term. Hopefully, restoring the normal hormonal milieu for preemies or other at-risk newborns will improve neurological outcomes in the future.”

In addition to Dr. Penn, study co-authors include Caitlin Drumm, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital; Sameer Desale, MedStar Health Research Institute; and Kathi Huddleston, Benjamin Solomon and John Niederhuber, Inova Translational Medicine Institute.