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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.

neuron

Children’s National to host 29th Annual Pediatric Neurology Update

neuron

The Children’s National Health System Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine is proud to host the 29th Annual Pediatric Neurology Update course.

This year’s course will focus on three critical areas in pediatric neuroscience and neurodevelopment: epilepsy with focuses on innovations in epilepsy surgery and new therapeutics; tuberous sclerosis including neurosurgical advances and transition to adulthood; and autism spectrum disorder with emphasis on new understandings and pre-requisites for an “Autism Friendly Hospital.”

We invite you to join us for presentations from renowned experts in the field in this full-day, CME accredited event on April 11, 2019 at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Rockville, MD.

For more information and to register, visit ChildrensNational.org/NeurologyUpdate.

John Strang

Neuro- and gender-diverse teens find their voices

John Strang

“These autistic young people spoke a lot about their gender and gender needs and their descriptions of gender dysphoria were deeply emotional. One of the common characteristics of autism is reduced communication of feelings, yet many of these young people were very clear about the anguish that gender dysphoria caused for them and also their need for gender-related interventions,” says John Strang, Psy.D., director of the Gender and Autism Program at Children’s National Health System and study lead.

“They Thought It Was An Obsession” is the title of a qualitative study from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, that provides an unprecedented glimpse into the development, thoughts, perceptions, feelings and needs of this poorly understood but significant subgroup of transgender and gender minority teens.

The title is an accurate reflection of the study’s analysis, which finds that the accounts of gender dysphoria in autistic transgender youth parallel those of transgender young people without autism. These findings stand in contrast to previous studies asserting the idea that gender dysphoria in autistic youth is driven primarily by superficial autism-related interests.

“These autistic young people spoke a lot about their gender and gender needs and their descriptions of gender dysphoria were deeply emotional. One of the common characteristics of autism is reduced communication of feelings, yet many of these young people were very clear about the anguish that gender dysphoria caused for them and also their need for gender-related interventions,” says John Strang, Psy.D., director of the Gender and Autism Program at Children’s National Health System and study lead.

Additionally, the autistic characteristics of these young people – which may reduce their concern for social conventions – often lead them to express their gender in individual and sometimes surprising ways.

“A transgender autistic young woman may wear a full beard and understand her gender identity as something completely separate from her appearance,” says Dr. Strang. “The cooccurrence of gender identity-diversity and autism may reveal something of the deeper nature of gender when the overlay of social gender expectations is reduced.”

The study followed 22 autistic transgender teens over nearly two years. It is the first study of its kind to track and follow up with this many youth with the cooccurrence over a significant period of time. The authors believe the report can serve as a guide for how clinicians, peers and families can better support and understand teens who are both neurodiverse and gender diverse.

The study’s methodology is also novel, as it features the inclusion of a slate of autistic gender-diverse coanalysts and coauthors who partnered in the interpretation of the youth provided data.

The coauthor group also included a retransitioned (previously transgender) self-advocate coanalyst to help provide context regarding the experiences and trajectories of the few study participants who moved away from transgender identity during the study’s duration.

Reid Caplan of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an autistic transgender self-advocate and one of the study’s coauthors noted, “Too often in medical literature, the overlap between autistic and transgender identities is described in a way that pathologizes both of these communities. As an autistic transgender young adult, I feel privileged to be a coauthor of research that puts the voices of autistic and gender-diverse youth at the forefront. By giving these youth control over their own narratives, this study exemplifies a key value of the self-advocate community: Nothing about us, without us!”

Research and Education Week awardees embody the diverse power of innovation

cnmc-research-education-week

“Diversity powers innovation” was brought to life at Children’s National April 16 to 20, 2018, during the eighth annual Research and Education Week. Children’s faculty were honored as President’s Award winners and for exhibiting outstanding mentorship, while more than 360 scientific poster presentations were displayed throughout the Main Atrium.

Two clinical researchers received Mentorship Awards for excellence in fostering the development of junior faculty. Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D received the award for Translational Science and Murray M. Pollack, M.D., M.B.A., was recognized in the Clinical Science category as part of Children’s National Health System’s Research and Education Week 2018.

Dr. Kenworthy has devoted her career to improving the lives of people on the autism spectrum and was cited by former mentees as an inspirational and tireless counselor. Her mentorship led to promising new lines of research investigating methods for engaging culturally diverse families in autism studies, as well as the impact of dual language exposure on cognition in autism.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pollack was honored for his enduring focus on motivating early-career professionals to investigate outcomes in pediatric critical care, emergency medicine and neonatology. Dr. Pollack is one of the founders of the Collaborative Pediatric Critical Care Research Network. He developed PRISM 1 and 2, which has revolutionized pediatric intensive care by providing a methodology to predict mortality and outcome using standardly collected clinical data. Mentees credit Dr. Pollack with helping them develop critical thinking skills and encouraging them to address creativity and focus in their research agenda.

In addition to the Mentorship and President’s Awards, 34 other Children’s National faculty, residents, interns and research staff were among the winners of Poster Presentation awards. The event is a celebration of the commitment to improving pediatric health in the form of education, research, scholarship and innovation that occurs every day at Children’s National.

Children’s Research Institute (CRI) served as host for the week’s events to showcase the breadth of research and education programs occurring within the entire health system, along with the rich demographic and cultural origins of the teams that make up Children’s National. The lineup of events included scientific poster presentations, as well as a full slate of guest lectures, educational workshops and panel discussions.

“It’s critical that we provide pathways for young people of all backgrounds to pursue careers in science and medicine,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s chief research officer and CRI’s scientific director. “In an accelerated global research and health care environment, internationalization of innovation requires an understanding of cultural diversity and inclusion of different mindsets and broader spectrums of perspectives and expertise from a wide range of networks,” Gallo adds.

“Here at Children’s National we want our current and future clinician-researchers to reflect the patients we serve, which is why our emphasis this year was on harnessing diversity and inclusion as tools to power innovation,” says Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., physician-in-chief and chief academic officer of Children’s National.

“Research and Education Week 2018 presented a perfect opportunity to celebrate the work of our diverse research, education and care teams, who have come together to find innovative solutions by working with local, national and international partners. This event highlights the ingenuity and inspiration that our researchers contribute to our mission of healing children,” Dr. Batshaw concludes.

Awards for the best posters were distributed according to the following categories:

  • Basic and translational science
  • Quality and performance improvement
  • Clinical research
  • Community-based research and
  • Education, training and program development.

Each winner illustrated promising advances in the development of new therapies, diagnostics and medical devices.

Diversity powers innovation: Denice Cora-Bramble, M.D., MBA
Diversity powers innovation: Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.
Diversity powers innovation: Mark L. Batshaw, M.D.

Rahul Shah

A big transformation starting with small changes from within

Rahul Shah

“It was novel and exciting to see managers, chiefs, and even front-line staff identify potential ‘projects’ that could potentially fall under this work,” said . Rahul Shah, M.D., Vice President and Chief Quality & Safety Officer. “The change, as the executive leadership hoped, was organic and recognized a true cultural shift.”

Like many health care systems, Children’s National realizes that in order to provide top care to patients, the hospital and health system have to constantly evolve. In 2013, across the country, the importance of a strong safety and quality program were growing and the organization’s executive leadership made it a key priority to deliver the best care and follow best practices to ensure that we were driving value in healthcare. Children’s National embarked on a long-term journey, known as Transformation 2018, that would ultimately prove successful in improving quality of care while reducing costs across the hospital system.

When starting this initiative, the leaders at Children’s realized that in order to successfully transition from volume-based to value-based care, the change had to occur organically – in other words, led by our own internal teams. Continuously striving to be on the forefront of quality and safety innovation, Children’s National has always valued a culture that empowers staff at all levels to be part of transformations, and this initiative was no different. Rahul Shah, M.D., Vice President and Chief Quality & Safety Officer, and Linda Talley, R.N., Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer, would lead the effort.

Rather than setting their sights on first targeting populations of patients, as is common practice, the team aimed to make an impact at a more micro level by focusing on particular diseases or diagnoses. This strategy allowed the initiative to start on a small scale and involve staff in numerous divisions across the health system, which would eventually pave the way for bolder and broader population health initiatives.

By integrating changes through individual initiatives, Children’s National achieved a combination of quality and cost savings in a number of disease areas, including autism, testicular torsion, idiopathic posterior spinal fusion and sickle cell disease vaso-occlusive crisis.

As the benefits of this effort were realized, leaders throughout the hospital approached the transformation team to see how they too could be a part of the project to transition their divisions.

“It was novel and exciting to see managers, chiefs, and even front-line staff identify potential ‘projects’ that could potentially fall under this work,” said Dr. Shah. “The change, as the executive leadership hoped, was organic and recognized a true cultural shift.”

Little girl eating

Daily tasks harder for girls with ASD

Little girl eating

Researchers found that girls with autism struggle with day-to-day functioning and independence skills more than boys.

Researchers at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National found something surprising in their recent study of executive function and adaptive skills. Girls, who often score well on direct assessments of communication skills, struggle more than boys with crucial tasks such as making a plan, getting organized and following through, as well as basic daily tasks like getting up and getting dressed, or making small talk.

“When parents were asked to rate a child’s day-to-day functioning, it turns out that girls were struggling more with these independence skills. This was surprising because in general, girls with ASD have better social and communication skills during direct assessments. The natural assumption would be that those communication and social skills would assist them to function more effectively in the world, but we found that this isn’t always the case,” says Allison Ratto, Ph.D., a psychologist in the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and one of the study’s authors. “Our goal was to look at real world skills, not just the diagnostic behaviors we use clinically to diagnose ASD, to understand how people are actually doing in their day to day lives.”

Conducted by a team within the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, the National Institute of Mental Health and The George Washington University, the study is the largest to date examining executive function and adaptive skills in women and girls with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The study collected parent-reported data from several rating scales of executive function and adaptive behavior, including the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, Parent Form (BRIEF) and the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-II (VABS-II). The group included 79 females and 158 males meeting clinical criteria for autism spectrum disorders, ranging in ages from 7 to 18 years old. The groups were matched for intelligence, age and level of autism and ADHD symptoms.

Little is known about autism in females

The findings are part of a growing body of research focused on how ASD may affect females differently than males. The ratio of girls to boys with autism is approximately one to three. As a result of the larger numbers of males, existing data is predominantly focused on traits and challenges in that population. This is especially true in clinical trials, where enrollment is overwhelmingly male.

“Our understanding of autism is overwhelmingly based on males, similar to the situation faced by the medical community once confronted with heart disease research being predominantly male,” notes Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and the study’s senior author. “We know how to identify signs, symptoms and treatments for autism in males, but we know very little about unique aspects of it in females.”

The historical lack of specific discovery around how autism presents in females may contribute to misdiagnosis or delay, and prevent implementation of necessary interventions. Such delays can have a major impact on outcomes, as recent research has demonstrated the critical importance of early diagnosis and intervention in ASD.

“Our focus in caring for children with autism is equipping all of them with strategies and skills to allow them to function and succeed in day-to-day living,” Dr. Kenworthy continues. “This study highlights that some common assumptions about the severity of challenges faced by girls with ASD may be wrong, and we may need to spend more time building the adaptive and executive function skills of these females if we want to help them thrive.”

“Enhancing our understanding of how biological differences change the presentation of autism in the long term is crucial to giving every person with ASD the tools they need to succeed in life,” she concludes.

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.”

Transgender adolescents on the autism spectrum, and the first clinical guidelines for care

Evidence indicates a link between transgenderism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). John Strang, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist in the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Health System, has dedicated his career to learning more about this co-occurrence and led a group of experts who recently released the first clinical guidelines for the care of transgender adolescents with ASD.

Through a comprehensive international search procedure, the research team, led by Dr. Strang, identified 22 experts in the care of transgender youth with autism. The expert group from around the world worked together for one year to create guidelines, putting processes in place to avoid interpersonal influence or bias.

The findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, outline the first initial clinical guidelines for treating transgender adolescents with ASD.

With overall 89.6 percent consensus achieved among the identified experts, key recommendations include the importance of assessing for ASD among transgender youth, and assessing for gender concerns among youth on the autism spectrum.

More study findings and recommendations

The study also indicates that gender-related medical treatments, including cross-sex hormone therapy, are appropriate for some youth with ASD, but emphasizes the importance of providing more extended time and supports in many cases to allow an adolescent with autism to explore a range of options regarding gender.

The guidelines emphasize that for many transgender youth with autism, parents must play a more active role. “Teens on the autism spectrum often struggle understanding how others perceive them,” Dr. Strang said. “Our study found that many transgender youth on the autism spectrum require specific coaching and supports in how to achieve their gender-related needs regarding gender presentation.”

Several risks for transgender adolescents with autism were emphasized in the study, including around physical safety and obtaining employment. “Trans youth are at increased risk for bullying, persecution, and violence in the community, and those on the autism spectrum are at even higher risk, as they often struggle to read social cues and recognize potentially dangerous social situations,” Dr. Strang said.

The importance of this study

The study group did not achieve consensus around specific guidelines for when an adolescent is appropriate for commencing medical gender treatments (e.g., cross-sex hormones). A majority (about 90 percent) of the expert participants elected to identify themselves as co-authors of the study, including many well-known clinicians across the United States as well as clinicians from The Netherlands.

“Until now, care for individuals with autism and gender concerns has been a matter of individual clinician judgment. This study has allowed for dialogue and discernment between the world’s experts in this field to establish the first recommendations for care,” Dr. Strang said.

Dr. Strang is currently working on a follow-up study to more directly capture the voices and experiences of youth with this co-occurrence, as key stakeholders and collaborators in the research.