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illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Focusing on the “little brain” to rescue cognition

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Research faculty at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., with colleagues recently published a review article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that covers the latest research about how abnormal development of the cerebellum leads to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Cerebellum translates as “little brain” in Latin. This piece of anatomy – that appears almost separate from the rest of the brain, tucked under the two cerebral hemispheres – long has been known to play a pivotal role in voluntary motor functions, such as walking or reaching for objects, as well as involuntary ones, such as maintaining posture.

But more recently, says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the Children’s Research Institute, the research arm of Children’s National  in Washington, D.C., researchers have discovered that the cerebellum is also critically important for a variety of non-motor functions, including cognition and emotion.

Sathyanesan, who studies this brain region in the laboratory of Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and scientific director of the Children’s Research Institute, recently published a review article with colleagues in Nature Reviews Neuroscience covering the latest research about how altered development of the cerebellum contributes to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

These disorders, he explains, are marked by problems in the nervous system that arise while it’s maturing, leading to effects on emotion, learning ability, self-control, or memory, or any combination of these. They include diagnoses as diverse as intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Down syndrome.

“One reason why the cerebellum might be critically involved in each of these disorders,” Sathyanesan says, “is because its developmental trajectory takes so long.”

Unlike other brain structures, which have relatively short windows of development spanning weeks or months, the principal cells of the cerebellum – known as Purkinje cells – start to differentiate from stem cell precursors at the beginning of the seventh gestational week, with new cells continuing to appear until babies are nearly one year old.  In contrast, cells in the neocortex, a part of the brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as cognition, sensory perception and language is mostly finished forming while fetuses are still gestating in the womb.

This long window for maturation allows the cerebellum to make connections with other regions throughout the brain, such as extensive connections with the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the cerebrum that plays a key role in perception, attention, awareness, thought, memory, language and consciousness. It also allows ample time for things to go wrong.

“Together,” Sathyanesan says, “these two characteristics are at the root of the cerebellum’s involvement in a host of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

For example, the review article notes, researchers have discovered both structural and functional abnormalities in the cerebellums of patients with ASD. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an imaging technique that measures activity in different parts of the brain, suggests that significant differences exist between connectivity between the cerebellum and cortex in people with ASD compared with neurotypical individuals. Differences in cerebellar connectivity are also evident in resting-state functional connectivity MRI, an imaging technique that measures brain activity in subjects when they are not performing a specific task. Some of these differences appear to involve patterns of overconnectivity to different brain regions, explains Sathyanesan; other differences suggest that the cerebellums of patients with ASD don’t have enough connections to other brain regions.

These findings could clarify research from Children’s National and elsewhere that has shown that babies born prematurely often sustain cerebellar injuries due to multiple hits, including a lack of oxygen supplied by infants’ immature lungs, he adds. Besides having a sibling with ASD, premature birth is the most prevalent risk factor for an ASD diagnosis.

The review also notes that researchers have discovered structural changes in the cerebellums of patients with Down syndrome, who tend to have smaller cerebellar volumes than neurotypical individuals. Experimental models of this trisomy recapitulate this difference, along with abnormal connectivity to the cerebral cortex and other brain regions.

Although the cerebellum is a pivotal contributor toward these conditions, Sathyanesan says, learning more about this brain region helps make it an important target for treating these neurodevelopmental disorders. For example, he says, researchers are investigating whether problems with the cerebellum and abnormal connectivity could be lessened through a non-invasive form of brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation or an invasive one known as deep brain stimulation. Similarly, a variety of existing pharmaceuticals or new ones in development could modify the cerebellum’s biochemistry and, consequently, its function.

“If we can rescue the cerebellum’s normal activity in these disorders, we may be able to alleviate the problems with cognition that pervade them all,” he says.

In addition to Sathyanesan and Senior Author Gallo, Children’s National study co-authors include Joseph Scafidi, D.O., neonatal neurologist; Joy Zhou and Roy V. Sillitoe, Baylor College of Medicine; and Detlef H. Heck, of University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke under grant numbers 5R01NS099461, R01NS089664, R01NS100874, R01NS105138 and R37NS109478; the Hamill Foundation; the Baylor College of Medicine Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54HD083092; the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) Neuroscience Institute; the UTHSC Cornet Award; the National Institute of Mental Health under grant number R01MH112143; and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54 HD090257.

Mark Batshaw

40 years, 8 editions: Writing “Children With Disabilities”

Mark Batshaw

Forty years ago, Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., almost singlehandedly wrote a 23-chapter first edition that ran about 300 pages. Now Dr. Batshaw’s tome, “Children With Disabilities,” is in its eighth edition, and this new volume is almost 1,000 pages, with 42 chapters, two co-editors and over 35 authors from Children’s National.

Back in 1978, Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., was a junior faculty member at John’s Hopkins University School of Medicine. In the evenings he taught a course in the university’s School of Education  titled “The Medical and Physical Aspects of the Handicapped Child,” for Master’s level special education students. Because no textbook at that time focused on that specific topic, Batshaw developed his own slide set.

“At the end of the first year of teaching the course my students said ‘You really ought to consider writing a text book based on your slides to help us move forward,’ ” Dr. Batshaw recalls. The father of three carved out time by writing on weekends and at night, cutting back on sleep.

His first goal was to create a textbook that would serve as a curriculum for a series of courses that would be taught at universities to specialists who work with children with disabilities, including social workers, physical and occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, special education teachers, nurses, doctors and dentists.

“I wanted to cover the whole range of disabilities and divided the book initially into a series of sections, including embryology, to help students understand what can go wrong in fetal development to lead to a developmental disability; and chapters on each developmental disability, including autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and traumatic brain injury,” he says. “The third section was devoted to available treatments, including occupational and physical therapy, speech language therapy, nutrition and medications. The final section focused on outcomes.”

His second aim was for the book to serve as a reference text for professionals in the field. The 33-year-old contacted a brand-new new publisher, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., that focused on special education. “They took a chance on me, and I took a chance on them,” he says.

Forty years ago, he almost singlehandedly produced a 23-chapter first edition that ran about 300 pages. Now Dr. Batshaw’s tome is in its eighth edition, and this new volume is almost 1,000 pages. And, rather than being its sole author, Dr. Batshaw enlisted two co-editors and at least five dozen authors who contributed specialty expertise in genetic counseling, social work, physical and occupational therapy, medicine and nursing. His daughter, Elissa, a special education teacher and school psychologist, authored a chapter about special education services, and his son, Drew, an executive at a start-up company, contributed autobiographical letters about the effect ADHD has had on his life.

The book, “Children With Disabilities,” also includes:

  • A glossary of medical terms so that as the reader reviews patient reports they can easily look up an unfamiliar term
  • An appendix on commonly used drugs to treat children with disabilities in order to look up the medicine by name and see the range of doses
  • An appendix devoted to different syndromes children might have
  • A reference section with organizations and foundations that help children with disabilities
  • A web site with sections designed for students and other content designed for teachers with thought questions to guide practical use of information in each chapter and more than 450 customizable PowerPoint slides for download
  • Call-out boxes for interdisciplinary team members, such as genetic counselors, explaining the roles they serve and their educational background, and
  • Excerpts of recent research articles.

“The students say they don’t sell the book. Usually when students have a textbook, they try to sell it second hand after the course ends,” explains Dr. Batshaw, now Executive Vice President, Physician-in-Chief and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National. “Instead, students keep it and use it as a practical reference as they become professionals in their field. It has had the impact I had hoped for both as a textbook and a reference book: They say they refer to it when they have patients with a particular disorder they’re not used to treating to read up on it.”

Now a bestseller, there are more than 200,000 copies in print, including Portuguese and Ukrainian translations. “It didn’t start that way. It grew organically,” he says.

In addition to Dr. Batshaw, Children’s contributors to “Children With Disabilities” include Nicholas Ah Mew, M.D., pediatric geneticist; Nickie N. Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Mackenzie E. Brown, D.O., fellow in Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine; Justin M. Burton, M.D., chief, Division of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine; Gabrielle Sky Cardwell, BA, clinical research assistant; Catherine Larsen Coley, PT, DPT, PCS, physical therapist; Laurie S. Conklin, M.D., pediatric gastroenterologist; Denice Cora-Bramble, M.D., MBA, executive vice president and chief medical officer; Heather de Beaufort, M.D., pediatric ophthalmologist; Dewi Frances T. Depositario-Cabacar, M.D., pediatric neurologist; Lina Diaz-Calderon, M.D., fellow in Pediatric Gastroenterology; Olanrewaju O. Falusi, M.D., associate medical director of municipal and regional affairs, Child Health Advocacy Institute; Melissa Fleming, M.D., pediatric rehabilitation specialist; William Davis Gaillard, M.D., chief Division of Epilepsy, Neurophysiology and Critical Care; Satvika Garg, Ph.D., occupational therapist; Virginia C. Gebus, R.N., MSN, APN, CNSC, nutritionist; Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, assistant chief, Division of Emergency Medicine; Andrea Gropman, M.D., chief, Division of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics and Neurogenetics, geneticist and Neurodevelopmental pediatrician; Mary A. Hadley, BS, senior executive assistant; Susan Keller, MLS., MS-HIT, research librarian; Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., director, Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders; Monisha S. Kisling, MS, CGC, genetic counselor; Eyby Leon, M.D., pediatric geneticist; Erin MacLeod, Ph.D., RD, LD, director, Metabolic Nutrition; Margaret B. Menzel, MS, CGC, genetic counselor; Shogo John Miyagi, Ph.D., PharmD, BCPPS, Pediatric Clinical Pharmacology fellow; Mitali Y. Patel, DDS, program director, Pediatric Dentistry; Deborah Potvin, Ph.D., neuropsychologist; Cara E. Pugliese, Ph.D., clinical psychologist; Khodayar Rais-Bahrami, M.D., neonatologist and director, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Fellowship Program; Allison B. Ratto, Ph.D., clinical psychologist; Adelaide S. Robb, M.D., chief, Division of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; Joseph Scafidi, D.O., neonatal neurologist; Erik Scheifele, D.M.D., chief, Division of Oral Health; Rhonda L. Schonberg, MS, CGC, genetic counselor; Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief, Division of Neonatology; Kara L. Simpson, MS, CGC, genetic counselor; Anupama Rao Tate, D.M.D., MPH, pediatric dentist; Lisa Tuchman, M.D., MPH, chief, Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine; Johannes N. van den Anker, M.D., Ph.D., FCP, chief, Division of Clinical Pharmacology, Vice Chair of Experimental Therapeutics; Miriam Weiss, CPNP-PC, nurse practitioner; and Tesfaye Getaneh Zelleke, M.D., pediatric neurologist.

Presidnet's Award for Innovation in Research

President’s Award highlights innovative work by early-career researchers

Presidnet's Award for Innovation in Research

As part of Research and Education Week 2018, two Presidential awardees were recognized for their research contributions, Catherine “Katie” Forster, M.D., M.S., and Nathan Anthony Smith, Ph.D.

Catherine “Katie” Forster, M.D., M.S., and Nathan Anthony Smith, Ph.D., received the President’s Award for Innovation in Research honoring their respective research efforts to explore an understudied part of the microbiome and to shed light on an underappreciated player in nerve cell communication.

Drs. Forster and Smith received their awards April 19, 2018, the penultimate day of Research and Education Week 2018, an annual celebration of the excellence in research, education, innovation and scholarship that takes place at Children’s National Health System. This year marks the fifth time the President’s Award honor has been bestowed to Children’s faculty.

Dr. Forster’s work focuses on preventing pediatric urinary tract infections (UTIs). Frequently, children diagnosed with illnesses like spina bifida have difficulty urinating on their own, and they often develop UTIs. These repeated infections are frequently treated with antibiotics which, in turn, can lead to the child developing antibiotic-resistant organisms.

“The majority of the time if you culture these children, you’ll grow something. In a healthy child, that culture would indicate a UTI,” Dr. Forster says. “Children with neurogenic bladder, however, may test positive for bacteria that simply look suspect but are not causing infection. Ultimately, we’re looking for better ways to diagnose UTI at the point of care to better personalize antibiotic treatment and limit prescriptions for children who do not truly need them.”

Powered by new sequencing techniques, a research group that includes Dr. Forster discovered that the human bladder hosts a significant microbiome, a diverse bacterial community unique to the bladder. Dr. Forster’s research will continue to characterize that microbiome to determine how that bacterial community evolves over time and whether those changes are predictable enough to intervene and prevent UTIs.

“Which genes are upregulated in Escherichia coli and the epithelium, and which genes are upregulated by both in response to each other? That can help us understand whether genes being upregulated are pathogenic,” she adds. “It’s a novel and exciting research area with significant public health implications.”

Smith’s work focuses on the role of astrocytes, specialized star-shaped glial cells, in modulating synaptic plasticity via norepinephrine. Conventional thinking describes astrocytes as support cells but, according to Smith, astrocytes are turning out to be more instrumental.

Norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that plays an essential role in attention and focus, is released by a process known as volume transmission, which is a widespread release of a neurotransmitter at once, says Smith, a principal investigator in Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research. Astrocytes, which outnumber neurons in the brain, are strategically and anatomically located to receive this diffuse input and translate it into action to modulate neural networks.

“We hypothesize that astrocytes are integral, functional partners with norepinephrine in modulating cortical networks,” Smith adds. “Since astrocytes and norepinephrine have been implicated in many central nervous system functions, including learning and attention, it is critical to define mechanistically how astrocytes and norepinephrine work together to influence neural networks. This knowledge also will be important for the development of novel therapeutics to treat diseases such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and epilepsy.”