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Breastfeeding Mom

Breast milk helps white matter in preemies

Breastfeeding Mom

Critical white matter structures in the brains of babies born prematurely at low birth weight develop more robustly when their mothers breast-feed them, compared with preemies fed formula.

Breast-feeding offers a slew of benefits to infants, including protection against common childhood infections and potentially reducing the risk of chronic health conditions such as asthma, obesity and type 2 diabetes. These benefits are especially important for infants born prematurely, or before 37 weeks gestation – a condition that affects 1 in 10 babies born in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prematurely born infants are particularly vulnerable to infections and other health problems.

Along with the challenges premature infants face, there is a heightened risk for neurodevelopmental disabilities that often do not fully emerge until the children enter school. A new study by Children’s National Health System researchers shows that breast-feeding might help with this problem. The findings, presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, show that critical white matter structures in the brains of babies born so early that they weigh less than 1,500 grams develop more robustly when their mothers breast-feed them, compared with preemie peers who are fed formula.

The Children’s National research team used sophisticated imaging tools to examine brain development in very low birth weight preemies, who weighed about 3 pounds at birth.

They enrolled 37 babies who were no more than 32 weeks gestational age at birth and were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit within the first 48 hours of life. Twenty-two of the preemies received formula specifically designed to meet the nutritional needs of infants born preterm, while 15 infants were fed breast milk. The researchers leveraged diffusion tensor imaging – which measures organization of the developing white matter of the brain – and 3-D volumetric magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to calculate brain volume by region, structure and tissue type, such as cortical gray matter, white matter, deep gray matter and cerebellum.

“We did not find significant differences in the global and regional brain volumes when we conducted MRIs at 40 weeks gestation in both groups of prematurely born infants,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory and senior author of the paper. “There are striking differences in white matter microstructural organization, however, with greater fractional anisotropy in the left posterior limb of internal capsule and middle cerebellar peduncle, and lower mean diffusivity in the superior cerebellar peduncle.”

White matter lies under the gray matter cortex, makes up about half of the brain’s volume, and is a critical player in human development as well as in neurological disorders. The increased white matter microstructural organization in the cerebral and cerebellar white matter suggests more robust fiber tracts and microarchitecture of the developing white matter which may predict better neurologic outcomes in preterm infants. These critical structures that begin to form in the womb are used for the rest of the person’s life when, for instance, they attempt to master a new skill.

“Previous research has linked early breast milk feeding with increased volumetric brain growth and improved cognitive and behavioral outcomes,” she says. “These very vulnerable preemies already experience a high incidence rate of neurocognitive dysfunction – even if they do not have detectable structural brain injury. Providing them with breast milk early in life holds the potential to lessen those risks.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics endorses breast-feeding because it lowers infants’ chances of suffering from ear infections and diarrhea in the near term and decreases their risks of being obese as children. Limperopoulos says additional studies are needed in a larger group of patients as well as longer-term follow up as growing infants babble, scamper and color to gauge whether there are differences in motor skills, cognition and writing ability between the two groups.

Catherine Limperopoulous

The brain’s fluid-filled spaces during growth

Catherine Limperopoulous

Catherine Limperopoulous, Ph.D., and her colleagues used volumetric MRIs to assess how the ventricles, cerebrospinal fluid and the rest of the fetal brain normally change over time.

The human brain is not one solid mass. Buried within its gray and white matter are a series of four interconnected chambers, called ventricles, which produce cerebrospinal fluid. These ventricles are readily apparent on the fetal ultrasounds that have become the standard of prenatal care in the United States and most developed countries around the world. Abnormalities in the ventricles’ size or shape – or both – can give doctors an early warning that fetal brain development might be going awry.

But what is abnormal? It is not always clear, says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System. Limperopoulos explains that despite having many variations in fetal ventricles, some infants have completely normal neurodevelopmental outcomes later. On the other hand, some extremely subtle variations in shape and size can signal problems.

On top of these complications are the tools clinicians typically use to assess the ventricles. Limperopoulos explains that most early indications of ventricle abnormalities come from ultrasounds, but the finer resolution of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can provide a more accurate assessment of fetal brain development. Still, both standard MRI and ultrasound provide only two-dimensional pictures, making it difficult to quantify slight differences in the volume of structures.

To help solve these problems, Limperopoulos and her colleagues recently published a paper in Developmental Neuroscience that takes a different tack. The team performed volumetric MRIs – a technique that provides a precise three-dimensional measure of structural volumes – on the brains of healthy fetuses to assess how the ventricles, cerebrospinal fluid and the rest of the brain normally change over time. Limperopoulos’ team recently performed a similar study to assess normal volumetric development in the brain’s solid tissues.

Previous studies published on comparable topics typically used information gathered from subjects who initially had clinical concerns but eventually were dismissed from these studies for not having worrisome diagnoses in the end. This might not truly reflect a typical population of pregnant women, Limperopoulos says.

Working with 166 pregnant women with healthy pregnancies spanning from 18 to 40 weeks gestation, the researchers performed volumetric MRIs on their singleton fetuses that covered every week of this second half of pregnancy. This technique allowed them to precisely calculate the volumes of structures within the fetal brain and get an idea of how these volumes changed over time within the group.

Their results show that over the second and third trimester:

  • The lateral ventricles, the largest ventricles found in the cerebrum with one for each brain hemisphere, grew about two-fold;
  • The third ventricle, found in the forebrain, grew about 23-fold;
  • The fourth ventricle, found in the hindbrain, grew about eight-fold;
  • And the extra-axial cerebrospinal fluid, found under the lining of the brain, increased about 11-fold.

The total brain volume increased 64-fold over this time, with the parenchyma – the solid brain tissue that encompasses gray and white matter – growing significantly faster than the cerebrospinal fluid-filled spaces.

Limperopoulos points out that the ability to measure the growth of the brain’s fluid-filled spaces relative to the surrounding brain tissue can provide critical information to clinicians caring for developing fetuses. In most cases, knowing what is normal allows doctors to reassure pregnant women that their fetus’ growth is on track. Abnormalities in these ratios can provide some of the first signals to alert doctors to blockages in cerebrospinal fluid flow, abnormal development, or the loss of brain tissue to damage or disease. Although the neurodevelopmental outcomes from each of these conditions can vary significantly, traditional ultrasounds or MRIs might not be able to distinguish these possibilities from each other. Being able to differentiate why cerebrospinal fluid spaces have abnormal shapes or sizes might allow doctors to better counsel parents, predict neurological outcomes, or potentially intervene before or after birth to mitigate brain damage.

“By developing a better understanding of what’s normal,” Limperopoulos says, “we can eventually identify reliable biomarkers of risk and guide interventions to minimize risks for vulnerable fetuses.”

Setting a baseline for healthy brain development

Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., and colleagues performed the largest magnetic resonance imaging study of normal fetal brains in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

Starting as a speck barely visible to the naked eye and ending the in utero phase of its journey at an average weight of 7.5 pounds, the growth of the human fetus is one of the most amazing events in biology. Of all the organs, the fetal brain undergoes one of the most rapid growth trajectories, expanding over 40 weeks from zero to 100 billion neurons — about as many brain cells as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

This exponential growth is part of what gives humans our unique abilities to use language or have abstract thoughts, among many other cognitive skills. It also leaves the brain extremely vulnerable should disruptions occur during fetal development. Any veering off the developmental plan can lead to a cascade of results that have long-lasting repercussions. For example, studies have shown that placental insufficiency, or the inability of the placenta to supply the fetus with oxygen and nutrients in utero, is associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and schizophrenia.

Recent research has identified differences in the brains of people with these disorders compared with those without. Despite the almost certain start of these conditions within the womb, they have remained impossible to diagnose until children begin to show clinical symptoms. If only researchers could spot the beginnings of these problems early in development, says Children’s National Health System researcher Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., they might someday be able to develop interventions that could turn the fetal brain back toward a healthy developmental trajectory.

“Conventional tools like ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can identify structural brain abnormalities connected to these problems, but by the time these differences become apparent, the damage already has been done,” Limperopoulos says. “Our goal is to be able to pick up very early deviations from normal in the high-risk pregnancy before an injury to the fetus might become permanent.”

Before scientists can recognize abnormal, she adds, they first need to understand what normal looks like.

In a new study published in Cerebral Cortex, Limperopoulos and colleagues begin to tackle this question through the largest MRI study of normal fetal brains in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. While other studies have attempted to track normal fetal brain growth, that research has not involved nearly as many subjects and typically relied on data collected when fetuses were referred for MRIs for a suspected problem. When the suspected abnormality was ruled out by the scan, these “quasi-controls” were considered “normal” — even though they may be at risk for problems later in life, Limperopoulos explains.

By contrast, the study she led recruited 166 healthy pregnant women from nearby low-risk obstetrics practices. Each woman had an unremarkable singleton pregnancy and ended up having a normal full-term delivery, with no evidence of problems affecting either the mother or fetus over the course of 40 weeks.

At least one time between 18 and 39 gestational weeks, the fetuses carried by these women underwent an MRI scan of their brains. The research team developed complex algorithms to account for movement (since neither the mothers nor their fetuses were sedated during scans) and to convert the two-dimensional images into three dimensions. They used the information from these scans to measure the increasing volumes of the cerebellum, an area of the brain connected to motor control and known to mediate cognitive skills; as well as regions of the cerebrum, the bulk of the brain, that is pivotal for movement, sensory processing, olfaction, language, and learning and memory.

Their results in uncomplicated, full-term pregnancies show that over 21 weeks in the second half of pregnancy, the cerebellum undergoes an astounding 34-fold increase in size. In the cerebrum, the fetal white matter, which connects various brain regions, grows 22-fold. The cortical gray matter, key to many of cerebrum’s functions, grows 21-fold. And the deep subcortical structures (thalamus and basal ganglia), important for relaying sensory information and coordination of movement and behavior, grow 10-fold. Additional examination showed that the left hemisphere has a larger volume than the right hemisphere early in development, but sizes of the left and right brain halves were equal by birth.

By developing similar datasets on high-risk pregnancies or births—for example, those in which fetuses are diagnosed with a problem in utero, mothers experience a significant health problem during pregnancy, babies are born prematurely, or fetuses have a sibling diagnosed with a health problem with genetic risk, such as autism—Limperopoulos says that researchers might be able to spot differences during gestation and post-natal development that lead to conditions such as schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder.

Eventually, researchers may be able to develop fixes so that babies grow up without life-long developmental issues.

“Understanding ‘normal’ is really opening up opportunities for us to begin to precisely pinpoint when things start to veer off track,” Limperopolous says. “Once we do that, opportunities that have been inaccessible will start to present themselves.”

Behind the Science

Nickie AndescavageNickie Andescavage, M.D.
Neonatologist and Study Lead Author
Research Interests: Fetal brain development in healthy and complex pregnancies, and early detection of brain injury in preterm and term infants through the use of advanced magnetic resonance imaging

Adre Du PlessisAdre du Plessis, M.B.,Ch.B.
Director, Fetal Medicine Institute; Division Chief, Fetal and Transitional Medicine and Study Co-Senior Author
Research interests: Congenital Zika viral infection, fetal medicine

Robert McCarter, Jr., Sc.D.
Research Section Head, Design and Biostatistics; Director of the Biostatistics and Informatics Core of the Intellectual and Developmental Disorders Consortium; and Study Co-Author
Research Interests: Diabetes mellitus

Ahmed Serag
Study Co-Author

Iordanis E. Evangelou
Study Co-Author

Gilbert Vezina,MDGilbert Vezina, M.D.
Radiologist; Director, Program in Neuroradiology; and Study Co-Author
Research Interests: Epilepsy, tumors of the brain and spinal cord, neonatal brain injury, phakomatoses, and trauma

Limperopoulos CCatherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.
Director, Developing Brain Research Laboratory; Co-Director of Research, Division of Neonatology Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; and Study Senior Author
Complex Trajectories of Brain Development in the Healthy Human Fetus” Published by Cerebral Cortex on October 31, 2016
Research Interests: Fetal neonatal brain injury

Using 3-D MRI for fetal brain imaging during high-risk pregnancies

3DMRI

What’s Known
The placenta plays an essential role in the growth of a healthy fetus and, among other critical tasks, it ferries in oxygen and nutrients. During pregnancies complicated by fetal growth restriction (FGR), the failing placenta cannot support the developing fetus adequately. FGR is a major cause of stillbirth and death, and newborns who do survive face numerous risks for multiple types of ailments throughout their lives. In fact, studies have shown that nutrient depravation during gestation can have lasting consequences that may manifest themselves years or decades later in life. These risks can also cross generations, affecting future pregnancies.

What’s New
A team of researchers applied an advanced imaging technique, three-dimensional (3-D) MRI, to study brain development in these high-risk pregnancies. They are the first to report regional, tissue-specific volume delays for the developing fetal brain in FGR-affected pregnancies. The team compared overall fetal brain volume as well as regional brain volumes for a control group of healthy young pregnant women with a group of young women whose pregnancies were complicated by FGR. While fetuses in both groups grew exponentially as pregnancies progressed, the researchers began to see dramatic differences when they compared the volumes of specific regions of the brain, including the cerebellum, which coordinates balance and smooth movement; the deep gray matter, which also is involved in complex functions, such as memory and emotion; and the white matter, which is made up of millions of nerve fibers that connect to neurons in different regions. Because there are no biomarkers to spot early brain failure, 3-D MRI imaging may fill this knowledge gap.

Questions for Future Research
Q: Certain regions of the brains of FGR-affected infants show accelerated volume. Are these differences regional or global?
Q: Is accelerated brain volume in FGR-affected infants a result of heightened stress that these fetuses experience in the womb?
Q: How do differences in regional brain volume relate to later neurodevelopmental impairment that some FGR-affected infants experience?

Source: “Impaired Global and Tissue-Specific Brain Development in the Growth-Restricted Fetus.N. Andescavage, J. Cruz, M. Metzler, A. du Plessis, and C. Limperopoulos. Presented during the 2016 Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD. May 2, 2016.

Catherine Limperopoulos

Connection between abnormal placenta and impaired growth of fetuses discovered

CLimperopoulous

A team of researchers used 3-D volumetric magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in an innovative study that reported that when the placenta fails to grow adequately in a fetus with congenital heart disease (CHD), it contributes to impaired fetal growth and premature birth. Fetal CHD involves an abnormality of the heart and is associated with increased risk for neurodevelopmental morbidity.Until now, CHD in the fetus and its relationship to placental function has been unknown. But the advanced fetal imaging study has shown for the first time that abnormal growth in the fetus with CHD relates to impaired placental growth over the third trimester of pregnancy. Catherine Limperopoulos, PhD, Director of Children’s National Developing Brain Research Laboratory in the Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, is the senior author of the study published in the September 2015 issue of the journal Placenta, “3-D Volumetric MRI Evaluation of the Placenta in Fetuses With Complex Heart Disease.”

Specifically, the decreased 3-D volumetric MRI measurements of pregnant women reported in this study suggest placental insufficiency related to CHD. The placenta nourishes and maintains the fetus, through the delivery of food and oxygen. Its volume and weight can determine fetal growth and birth weight.

Abnormality in placental development may contribute to significant morbidity in this high risk-population. This study shows impaired placental growth in CHD fetuses is associated with the length of the pregnancy and weight at birth. Nearly 1 in every 100 babies is born in the United States with a congenital heart defect.

Developing the capacity to examine the placenta non-invasively using advanced MRI is needed to identify early markers of impaired placental structure and function in the high-risk pregnancy. This is a critical first step towards developing strategies for improved fetal monitoring and management, Dr. Limperopoulos says.

“We are trying to develop the earliest and most reliable indicators of placental health and disease in high-risk pregnancies. Our goal is to bring these early biomarkers into clinical practice and improve our ability to identify placental dysfunction,” Dr. Limperopoulos says. “If we can develop the capacity to reliably identify when things begin to veer off course, we then have a window of opportunity to develop therapies to restore function.”

The study used in-vivo 3-D MRI studies and explored placental development and its relationship to neonatal outcomes by comparing placental volumetric growth in healthy pregnancies and pregnancies complicated by CHD.

While mortality rates continue to decrease steadily in newborns diagnosed with complex CHD, long-term neurodevelopmental impairments are recognized with increasing frequency in surviving infants, Dr. Limperopoulos says.

“Our goal is to better support the developing fetus with CHD. We can best accomplish this if we develop technology that can allow us to safely and effectively monitor the fetal-placental unit as a whole throughout pregnancy,” Dr. Limperopoulos says.

“This is the new frontier, not only to ensure survival but to safeguard the fetus and to ensure the best possible quality of life,” she says.