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Lataisia C. Jones on Mission Unstoppable

Getting to know the unstoppable Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D.

Lataisia C. Jones on Mission Unstoppable

Children’s National Hospital neuroscientist Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D., appears in the Jan. 18, 2020, edition of Mission Unstoppable, a Saturday morning show aired by CBS that spotlights cutting-edge women leaders in science, technology, engineering and math.

Budding neuroscientist Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D., is unstoppable. For instance, using everyday items that families can pluck from their own kitchen cabinets, she walks kids through the steps of creating homemade lava lamps. In the process, the youngsters learn a bit of science, like the fact that oil and water do not mix provides the hypnotic magic behind their new lamps.

Jones’ infectious enthusiasm for science that Children’s National Hospital patients and families experience in person during weekly Young Scientist sessions she hosts will be shared nationwide as Jones appears in the Jan. 18, 2020, edition of “Mission Unstoppable.” The half-hour show aired by CBS on Saturday mornings is co-produced by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and spotlights cutting-edge women leaders in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“I’m excited,” Jones says of the filming experience. “It’s going to be an amazing opportunity to show kids that there is a fun way of learning. This show is opening a lot of doors and a lot of eyes to the fact that science can be fun.”

Jones’ scientific inquiry focuses on the corpus callosum, a network of fibers centrally located in the middle of the brain that is responsible for transferring information from one lobe to another. Her current research leverages experimental models to better understand brain abnormalities associated with autism spectrum disorder. Or, as she tells CBS viewers, studying the brain helps the field better understand how information is processed in order for people to move, learn and think effortlessly.

Lataisia C. Jones on Mission Unstoppable

“I’m excited,” Jones says of the filming experience. “It’s going to be an amazing opportunity to show kids that there is a fun way of learning. This show is opening a lot of doors and a lot of eyes to the fact that science can be fun.”

In September 2019, Jones was selected to serve as an IF/THEN Ambassador by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society, to inspire the next generation of women pursuing STEM careers. A postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Neuroscience Research lab run by Masaaki Torii, Ph.D., Jones now also serves as a role model for future scientists, connecting with middle school students in person, virtually and via the CBS network television show.

“A lot of my inspiration comes from individuals who I mentor, which also shows that I am learning as well. If I am able to teach science, translate it in different ways to different audiences, I am helping to fulfill my lifelong dream,” she adds. “I always say we all have an inner scientist.”

As the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Florida State University’s College of Medicine, Department of Neuroscience, Jones has continued to acquire “first” experiences throughout her academic and professional career. But she’s also motivated to diversify the ranks of science to ensure she’s not the last.

“I am not the normal face you see in science,” she says. “Another reason for me to be stronger and to work harder and get more things done in science is so people who look like me know they can do the same things and know that they’re just as good.”

WATCH: Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D., explains her research

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.
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.

Pediatric Neurology Update Attendees

Pediatric neurologists get a primer on the state of ASD research and care

Pediatric Neurology Update Attendees

Neurologists who attended the 2019 Pediatric Neurology Update received a broad look at autism spectrum disorders, ranging from biology to clinical care and advocacy.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) took center stage for the afternoon sessions of the annual Pediatric Neurology Update in April. The meeting, hosted by the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Health System, brings together 150-plus pediatric neurologists each year to discuss critical research and clinical care of pediatric neurological conditions.

Led by the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders Director Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., the afternoon’s slate of presentations sought to give broad perspective of the current state of ASD research and treatment best practices.

“We know that the brain is different in autism, but many times we continue to define autism by behavioral traits,” Dr. Kenworthy told the crowd in her introduction. “Sitting between the brain and behavior often is cognition – how do you understand your world and interpret it?”

The afternoon’s presentations were organized to provide the audience with a clear picture of many facets of ASD research and treatment. Highlights included:

  • Joshua Corbin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroscience Research, offered “New Insights into the Neurobiologic Underpinnings of Autism,” which mapped out some of the biological mechanisms of autism.
  • Adelaide Robb, M.D., and Dr. Kenworthy presented current clinical care outlines, with Dr. Robb focusing on pharmacological therapies and Dr. Kenworthy sharing successful strategies to improve executive functioning and day to day task management for school-aged children.

Attendees also received a taste of two current “hot topics” in autism research and care:

  • Kevin Pelphrey, Ph.D., presented recent findings on “Gender Differences in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Girls with Autism” calling attention to the fact that the current diagnostic standards may not capture some female-associated phenotypes of ASD.
  • Julia Bascom of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network brought the autistic person’s point of view to the table via her presentation: “Autism: Society and Government Challenges and Solutions,” which focused on her organization’s efforts to improve inclusivity in advocacy and research, which she sums up as, “Nothing about us without us.”

The session concluded with a real-world focused “Autism-Friendly Hospital Roundtable,” of six panelists from the clinical, advocacy, community and technology fields, who are all involved in hands-on practices to improve medical experiences for autistic children and adults.

  • CASD’s Yetta Myrick talked about her work to engage families of autistic children in discussions of research and clinical care programs, including the start of CASD’s first-ever Stakeholder Advisory Board.
  • Julia Bascom talked about some of the less-often discussed challenges for many autistic people who seek medical services.
  • Kathleen Atmore, Psy.D., and Eileen Walters, MSN, RN, CPN, provided an overview of Beyond the Spectrum, the clinical service at Children’s National that coaches providers and families in techniques to reduce the stress of routine medical visits for patients with autism and other developmental disabilities.
  • Amy Kratchman, director of the LEND Family Collaboration at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, talked about some of the autism-friendly strategies underway at her institution.
  • Michael O’Neil, JD, MBA, founder and CEO of the GetWell Network, Inc., previewed how GetWell and Children’s National are partnering on a new tool that harnesses app technology to bring better information to autistic children and their families after a new autism diagnosis.
  • Vijay Ravindran, CEO and co-founder at Floreo, demonstrated how it might be possible to reduce stress and create a calm peaceful autism-friendly environment even in the busiest of waiting rooms, by allowing the patient to escape via virtual reality.

The roundtable showcased how Children’s National and other health care institutions are using evidence-based strategies to improve medical care experiences for autistic people and their families. Ideally any provider, including pediatric neurologists, who cares for people from the autism community, can incorporate any or all of these strategies as a way to meet the unique needs of this patient population.

The content was so timely and relevant to the audience that many attendees stayed past the official end of the meeting to continue discussing best practices with the panelists and each other.

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.

Dr. Anna Penn uses a microscope

New model mimics persistent interneuron loss seen in prematurity

Dr. Anna Penn uses a microscope

Children’s research-clinicians created a novel preclinical model that mimics the persistent interneuron loss seen in preterm human infants, identifying interneuron subtypes that could become future therapeutic targets to prevent or lessen neurodevelopmental risks.

Research-clinicians at Children’s National Health System have created a novel preclinical model that mimics the persistent interneuron loss seen in preterm human infants, identifying interneuron subtypes that could become future therapeutic targets to prevent or lessen neurodevelopmental risks, the team reports Jan. 31, 2019, in eNeuro. The open access journal for Society for Neuroscience recognized the team’s paper as its “featured” article.

In the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of infants born preterm, there are decreased somatostatin and calbindin interneurons seen in upper cortical layers in infants who survived for a few months after preterm birth. This neuronal damage was mimicked in an experimental model of preterm brain injury in the PFC, but only when the newborn experimental models had first experienced a combination of prenatal maternal immune activation and postnatal chronic sublethal hypoxia. Neither neuronal insult on its own produced the pattern of interneuron loss in the upper cortical layers observed in humans, the research team finds.

“These combined insults lead to long-term neurobehavioral deficits that mimic what we see in human infants who are born extremely preterm,” says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the Division of Neonatology and the Fetal Medicine Institute and a developmental neuroscientist at Children’s National Health System, and senior study author. “Future success in preventing neuronal damage in newborns relies on having accurate experimental models of preterm brain injury and well-defined outcome measures that can be examined in young infants and experimental models of the same developmental stage.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1 in 10 infants is born preterm, before the 37th week of pregnancy. Many of these preterm births result from infection or inflammation in utero. After delivery, many infants experience other health challenges, like respiratory failure. These multi-hits can exacerbate brain damage.

Prematurity is associated with significantly increased risk of neurobehavioral pathologies, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. In both psychiatric disorders, the prefrontal cortex inhibitory circuit is disrupted due to alterations of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) interneurons in a brain region involved in working memory and social cognition.

Cortical interneurons are created and migrate late in pregnancy and early infancy. That timing leaves them particularly vulnerable to insults, such as preterm birth.

In order to investigate the effects of perinatal insults on GABAergic interneuron development, the Children’s research team, led by Helene Lacaille, Ph.D., in Dr. Penn’s laboratory, subjected the new preterm encephalopathy experimental model to a battery of neurobehavioral tests, including working memory, cognitive flexibility and social cognition.

“This translational study, which examined the prefrontal cortex in age-matched term and preterm babies supports our hypothesis that specific cellular alterations seen in preterm encephalopathy can be linked with a heightened risk of children experiencing neuropsychiatric disorders later in life,” Dr. Penn adds. “Specific interneuron subtypes may provide specific therapeutic targets for medicines that hold the promise of preventing or lessening these neurodevelopmental risks.”

In addition to Dr. Penn and Lead Author Lacaille, Children’s co-authors include Claire-Marie Vacher; Dana Bakalar, Jiaqi J. O’Reilly and Jacquelyn Salzbank, all of Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award R01HD092593, District of Columbia Intellectual Developmental Disabilities Research Center under award U54HD090257, Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation, Children’s National Board of Visitors, Children’s Research Institute and Fetal Medicine Institute.

Vittorio Gallo

Neurodevelopmental disorders: Developing medical treatments

Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer, participates in the world’s largest general scientific gathering, leading panelists in a timely conversation about progress made so far with neurodevelopmental disorders and challenges that lie ahead.

The human brain is the body’s operating system. Imagine if rogue code worked its way into its hardware and software, delaying some processes, disrupting others, wreaking general havoc.

Neurodevelopmental disorders are like that errant code. They can occur early in life and impact brain development for the rest of the person’s life. Not only can fundamental brain development go awry, processes that refine the brain also can become abnormal, creating a double neural hit.  Adding to those complications, children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Fragile X syndrome often contend with multiple, overlapping cognitive impairments and learning disabilities.

The multiple layers of complexities for these disorders can make developing effective medical treatments particularly challenging, says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National Health System and recipient of a coveted Senator Jacob Javits Award in the Neurosciences.

During the Feb. 16, 2019, “Neurodevelopmental Disorders: Developing Medical Treatments” symposium, Gallo will guide esteemed panelists in a timely conversation about progress made so far and challenges that lie ahead during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, the world’s largest general scientific gathering.

“This is a very important symposium; we’re going to put all of the open questions on the table,” says Gallo. “We’re going to present a snapshot of where the field is right now: We’ve made incredible advances in developmental neuroscience, neonatology, neurology, diagnostic imaging and other related fields. The essential building blocks are in place. Where are we now in developing therapeutics for these complex disorders?”

For select disorders, many genes have been identified, and each new gene has the potential to become a target for improved therapies. However, for other neurodevelopmental disorders, like ASD, an array of new genes continue to be discovered, leaving an unfinished picture of which genetic networks are of most importance.

Gallo says the assembled experts also plan to explore major research questions that remain unanswered as well as how to learn from past experiences to make future studies more powerful and insightful.

“One topic up for discussion will be new preclinical models that have the potential to help in identifying specific mechanisms that cause these disorders. A combination of genetic, biological, psychosocial and environmental risk factors are being combined in these preclinical models,” Gallo says.

“Our studies of the future need to move beyond describing and observing in order to transform into studies that establish causality between the aberrant developmental processes and these constellations of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

DNA moleucle

PAC1R mutation may be linked to severity of social deficits in autism

DNA moleucle

A mutation of the gene PAC1R may be linked to the severity of social deficits experienced by kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), finds a study from a multi-institutional research team led by Children’s National faculty. If the pilot findings are corroborated in larger, multi-center studies, the research published online Dec. 17, 2018, in Autism Research represents the first step toward identifying a potential novel biomarker to guide interventions and better predict outcomes for children with autism.

As many as 1 in 40 children are affected by ASD. Symptoms of the disorder – such as not making eye contact, not responding to one’s name when called, an inability to follow a conversation of more than one speaker or incessantly repeating certain words or phrases – usually crop up by the time a child turns 3.

The developmental disorder is believed to be linked, in part, to disrupted circuitry within the amygdala, a brain structure integral for processing social-emotional information. This study reveals that PAC1R is expressed during key periods of brain development when the amygdala – an almond-shaped cluster of neurons – develops and matures. A properly functioning amygdala, along with brain structures like the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, are crucial to neurotypical social-emotional processing.

“Our study suggests that an individual with autism who is carrying a mutation in PAC1R may have a greater chance of more severe social problems and disrupted functional brain connectivity with the amygdala,” says Joshua G. Corbin, Ph.D., interim director of the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System and the study’s co-senior author. “Our study is one important step along the pathway to developing new biomarkers for autism spectrum disorder and, hopefully, predicting patients’ outcomes.”

The research team’s insights came through investigating multiple lines of evidence:

  • They looked at gene expression in the brains of an experimental model at days 13.5 and 18.5 of fetal development and day 7 of life, dates that correspond with early, mid and late amygdala development. They confirmed that Pac1r is expressed in the experimental model at a critical time frame for brain development that coincides with the timing for altered brain trajectories with ASD.
  • They looked at gene expression in the human brain by mining publicly available genome-wide transcriptome data, plotting median PAC1R expression values for key brain regions. They found high levels of PAC1R expression at multiple ages with higher PAC1R expression in male brains during the fetal period and higher PAC1R expression in female brains during childhood and early adulthood.
  • One hundred twenty-nine patients with ASD aged 6 to 14 were recruited for behavioral assessment. Of the 48 patients who also participated in neuroimaging, 20 were able to stay awake for five minutes without too much movement as the resting state functional magnetic resonance images were captured. Children who were carriers of the high-risk genotype had higher resting-state connectivity between the amygdala and right posterior temporal gyrus. Connectivity alterations in a region of the brain involved in processing visual motion may influence how kids with ASD perceive socially meaningful information, the authors write.
  • Each child also submitted a saliva sample for DNA genotyping. Previously published research finds that a G to C single nucleotide polymorphism, a single swap in the nucleotides that make up DNA, in PAC1R is associated with higher risk for post traumatic stress disorder in girls. In this behavioral assessment, the research team found children with autism who carried the homozygous CC genotype had higher scores as measured through a validated tool, meaning they had greater social deficits than kids with the heterozygous genotype.

All told, the project is the fruit of six years of painstaking research and data collection, say the researchers. That includes banking patients’ saliva samples collected during clinical visits for future retrospective analyses to determine which genetic mutations were correlated with behavioral and functional brain deficits, Corbin adds.

Lauren Kenworthy, who directs our Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, and I have been talking over the years about how we could bring our programs together. We homed in on this project to look at about a dozen genes to assess correlations and brought in experts from genetics and genomics at Children’s National to sequence genes of interest,” he adds. “Linking the bench to bedside is especially difficult in neuroscience. It takes a huge amount of effort and dozens of discussions, and it’s very rare. It’s an exemplar of what we strive for.”

In addition to Corbin, study co-authors include Lead Author Meredith Goodrich and Maria Jesus Herrero, post-doctoral fellow, Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research; Anna Chelsea Armour and co-Senior Author Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., Children’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders; Karuna Panchapakesan, Joseph Devaney and Susan Knoblach, Ph.D., Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research; Xiaozhen You and Chandan J. Vaidya, Georgetown University; and Catherine A.W. Sullivan and Abha R. Gupta, Yale School of Medicine.

Financial support for the research described in this report was provided by DC-IDDRC under awards HD040677-07 and 1U54HD090257, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National, The Isidore and Bertha Gudelsky Family Foundation and the National Institutes of Health under awards MH083053-01A2 and MH084961.

Laura Anthony and Lauren Kenworthy IMFAR

Tools for diverse populations with autism

Laura Anthony and Lauren Kenworthy IMFAR

Laura Anthony, Ph.D., and Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., from Children’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders shared their knowledge and research findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research.

Researchers, doctors and parents of autistic children seem to all agree on one truth: If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism. That fact helps to explain why every spring, researchers and clinicians from around the world gather for the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) – it’s a key opportunity to connect with some of the most respected investigators and stakeholder partners in the research community, and to understand the similarities as well as the differences between autistic populations around the world. Through three days of keynote and panel discussions as well as hundreds of poster presentations on a variety of topics, IMFAR aims to exchange and disseminate the latest scientific and clinical progress in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to this global audience of scientists and trainees.

This year, ten faculty members, staff and volunteers from the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) at Children’s National attended IMFAR, and presented on a variety of topics related to better understanding the complex challenges of ASD, especially in diverse patient populations such as Latinos and young adults with gender dysphoria.

Laura Anthony, Ph.D., clinical psychologist within CASD, led a panel session entitled, “Addressing Disparities through Interventions in Diverse Community Systems,” which highlighted four community based intervention projects aimed at tackling the vast disparities that exist in screening, diagnosis, acceptance, inclusion and access to evidence-based care, based on populations.

“Each of these studies takes place in very different community contexts,” says Dr. Anthony, “but they share common themes of addressing disparities, using intensive stakeholder input and community partnerships to increase successful adoption, and achieving sustainability through harnessing the existing community-based resources to administer the interventions.”

The panel presentations featured studies from Children’s National as well as other research institutions:

  • Anthony’s co-investigation of the Sesame Workshop’s online tools called See Amazing in All Children and their effectiveness at providing useful education and resources for parents of children with ASD and at helping parents of non-ASD children feel more accepting of children on the spectrum.
  • Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., presented findings from the first study comparing two school-based cognitive-behavioral interventions developed by Children’s National and Ivymount, a school for children with autism, ADHD and other special needs. The interventions target executive function/problem solving and increase children’s availability for learning at school. As the interventions are provided by school staff in the school setting, they hold promise to reach the many children who otherwise have no access to specialized clinical care for these disorders. As evidence of this, approximately half of the children in this large scale project in low-income public/charter schools had not received a diagnosis of ADHD or autism prior to the study.
  • A study of the impacts of a stakeholder-informed primary care program to increase the rate of screening and referral for young Latino children (Georgetown University).
  • An analysis of one program’s efforts to increase the use of evidence-based practices in publically-funded mental health centers (University of California, San Diego; University of California, Los Angeles; and University of Illinois).
Allison Ratto Poster IMFAR

Allison Ratto, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the CASD, presented a poster entitled “Engaging Latino Families in ASD Treatment Research,” the first assessment of this type of effort to bring information and tools to Latino families in a way that makes them accessible.

Despite having vastly different designs, the panel also identified several common learned lessons from the studies. These include the amount of time required to build trusting relationships in previously neglected communities, and the need for creative and adaptive methodologies. Additionally, the importance of including individuals with ASD, their families and people in the community systems that serve them in stakeholder feedback sessions, and the need for specialized adaptations for each community’s unique needs.

Team members also presented ten research posters across a variety of specialty poster sessions, including Allison Ratto, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the CASD, who presented “Engaging Latino Families in ASD Treatment Research,” the first assessment of this type of effort to bring information and tools to Latino families in a way that makes them accessible.

“By developing an adaptive and flexible program, we were able to gain high levels of engagement from Latino families, who previously faced significant barriers to participation. The results show that if researchers take additional steps to build community trust and maintain stakeholder engagement, it is possible to recruit and retain study participants, and ultimately, meet the needs of underserved families.” Dr. Ratto concludes. Her poster was featured in a story in Spectrum News.

“IMFAR is definitely the premier opportunity to dialogue across disciplines and study methods,” says Dr. Kenworthy, who directs the CASD. “We hope that sharing our work at this prestigious meeting brings new understanding for our team and our colleagues in how to best meet the unique needs of psychologically, ethnically and economically diverse patients and families.”