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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.

newborn in incubator

In HIE lower heart rate variability signals stressed newborns

newborn in incubator

In newborns with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), lower heart rate variability correlates with autonomic manifestations of stress shortly after birth, underscoring the value of this biomarker, according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Tethered to an array of machines that keep their bodies nourished, warm and alive, newborns with health issues can’t speak. But Children’s research teams are tapping into what the machinery itself says, looking for insights into which vulnerable infants are most in need of earlier intervention.

Heart rate variability – or the variation between heartbeats – is a sign of health. Our autonomic nervous system constantly sends signals to adjust our heart rate under normal conditions. We can measure heart rate variability non-invasively, providing a way to detect potential problems with the autonomic nervous system as a sensitive marker of health in critically ill newborns,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., co-Director of Research for the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National, and the study’s senior author. “We’re looking for validated markers of brain injury in babies with HIE, and our study helps to support heart rate variability as one such valuable physiological biomarker.”

In most newborns, the autonomic nervous system reliably and automatically receives information about the body and the outside world and, in response, controls essential functions like blood pressure, body temperature, how quickly the baby breathes and how rapidly the newborn’s heart beats. The sympathetic part stimulates body processes, while the parasympathetic part inhibits body processes. When the nervous system’s internal auto-pilot falters, babies can suffer.

The Children’s team enrolled infants with HIE in the prospective, observational study. (HIE is brain damage that occurs with full-term babies who experience insufficient blood and oxygen flow to the brain around the time they are born.) Fifteen percent had severe encephalopathy. Mean age of babies in the observational study was 38.9 weeks gestation. Their median Apgar score at five minutes was 3; the 0-9 Apgar range indicates how ready newborns are for the rigors of life outside the womb.

The team analyzed heart rate variability metrics for three time periods:

  • The first 24 to 27 hours of life
  • The first three hours after babies undergoing therapeutic cooling were rewarmed and
  • The first three hours after babies’ body temperature had returned to normal.

They correlated the relationship between heart rate variability for 68 infants during at least one of these time periods with the stress z-score from the NICU Network Neurobehavioral Scale. The scale is a standardized assessment of newborn’s neurobehavioral integrity. The stress summary score indicates a newborn’s overall stress response, and six test items specifically relate to autonomic function.

“Alpha exponent and root mean square in short timescales, root mean square in long timescales, as well as low and high frequency powers positively correlated with stress scores and, even after adjusting for covariates, remained independently associated at 24 hours,” says Allie Townsend, the study’s lead author.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Heart rate variability (HRV) measures of autonomic nervous system (ANS) function relates to neonatal neurobehavioral manifestations of stress in newborn with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 5:45 p.m. (EST)

Allie Townsend, lead author; Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., staff scientist, Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab and co-author; Penny Glass, Ph.D., director, Child Development Program and co-author; Judy Brown, co-author; Tareq Al-Shargabi, M.S., co-author; Taeun Chang, M.D., director, Neonatal Neurology and Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program and co-author; Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine and co-author; An N. Massaro, M.D., co-Director of Research for the Division of Neonatology and senior author, all of Children’s National.

Catherine Limperopoulos

Breastfeeding boosts metabolites important for brain growth

Catherine Limperopoulos

“Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites that may play a critical role for growth and explain what makes breastfeeding beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.

Micro-preemies who primarily consume breast milk have significantly higher levels of metabolites important for brain growth and development, according to sophisticated imaging conducted by an interdisciplinary research team at Children’s National.

“Our previous research established that vulnerable preterm infants who are fed breast milk early in life have improved brain growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It was unclear what makes breastfeeding so beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites essential for growth and answer that lingering question.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. infants is born preterm. The Children’s research team presented their findings during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

The research-clinicians enrolled babies who were very low birthweight (less than 1,500 grams) and 32 weeks gestational age or younger at birth when they were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit in the first week of life. The team gathered data from the right frontal white matter and the cerebellum – a brain region that enables people to maintain balance and proper muscle coordination and that supports high-order cognitive functions.

Each chemical has its own a unique spectral fingerprint. The team generated light signatures for key metabolites and calculated the quantity of each metabolite. Of note:

  • Cerebral white matter spectra showed significantly greater levels of inositol (a molecule similar to glucose) for babies fed breast milk, compared with babies fed formula.
  • Cerebellar spectra had significantly greater creatine levels for breastfed babies compared with infants fed formula.
  • And the percentage of days infants were fed breast milk was associated with significantly greater levels of both creatine and choline, a water soluble nutrient.

“Key metabolite levels ramp up during the times babies’ brains experience exponential growth,” says Katherine M. Ottolini, the study’s lead author. “Creatine facilitates recycling of ATP, the cell’s energy currency. Seeing greater quantities of this metabolite denotes more rapid changes and higher cellular maturation. Choline is a marker of cell membrane turnover; when new cells are generated, we see choline levels rise.”

Already, Children’s National leverages an array of imaging options that describe normal brain growth, which makes it easier to spot when fetal or neonatal brain development goes awry, enabling earlier intervention and more effective treatment. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy may serve as an important additional tool to advance our understanding of how breastfeeding boosts neurodevelopment for preterm infants,” Limperopoulos adds.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Improved cerebral and cerebellar metabolism in breast milk-fed VLBW infants.”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 3:30–3:45 p.m. (EST)

Katherine M. Ottolini, lead author; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and co-author; Kushal Kapse, research and development staff engineer and co-author; Sudeepta Basu, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain and senior author, all of Children’s National.

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Research and Education Week honors innovative science

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the 2019 REW award winners:

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

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

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

Ninth Annual Research and Education Week Poster Session Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

View images from the REW2019 award ceremony.

Beth Tarini

Getting to know SPR’s future President, Beth Tarini, M.D., MS

Beth Tarini

Quick. Name four pillar pediatric organizations on the vanguard of advancing pediatric research.

Most researchers and clinicians can rattle off the names of the Academic Pediatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Pediatric Society. But that fourth one, the Society for Pediatric Research (SPR), is a little trickier. While many know SPR, a lot of research-clinicians simply do not.

Over the next few years, Beth A. Tarini, M.D., MS, will make it her personal mission to ensure that more pediatric researchers get to know SPR and are so excited about the organization that they become active members. In May 2019 Dr. Tarini becomes Vice President of the society that aims to stitch together an international network of interdisciplinary researchers to improve kids’ health. Four-year SPR leadership terms begin with Vice President before transitioning to President-Elect, President and Past-President, each for one year.

Dr. Tarini says she looks forward to working with other SPR leaders to find ways to build more productive, collaborative professional networks among faculty, especially emerging junior faculty. “Facilitating ways to network for research and professional reasons across pediatric research is vital – albeit easier said than done. I have been told I’m a connector, so I hope to leverage that skill in this new role,” says Dr. Tarini, associate director for Children’s Center for Translational Research.

“I’m delighted that Dr. Tarini was elected to this leadership position, and I am impressed by her vision of improving SPR’s outreach efforts,” says Mark Batshaw, M.D., Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer and Physician-in-Chief at Children’s National. “Her goal of engaging potential members in networking through a variety of ways – face-to-face as well as leveraging digital platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – and her focus on engaging junior faculty will help strengthen SPR membership in the near term and long term.”

Dr. Tarini adds: “Success to me would be leaving after four years with more faculty – especially junior faculty – approaching membership in SPR with the knowledge and enthusiasm that they bring to membership in other pediatric societies.”

SPR requires that its members not simply conduct research, but move the needle in their chosen discipline. In her research, Dr. Tarini has focused on ensuring that population-based newborn screening programs function efficiently and effectively with fewer hiccups at any place along the process.

Thanks to a heel stick to draw blood, an oxygen measurement, and a hearing test, U.S. babies are screened for select inherited health conditions, expediting treatment for infants and reducing the chances they’ll experience long-term health consequences.

“The complexity of this program that is able to test nearly all 4 million babies in the U.S. each year is nothing short of astounding. You have to know the child is born – anywhere in the state – and then between 24 and 48 hours of birth you have to do testing onsite, obtain a specific type of blood sample, send the blood sample to an off-site lab quickly, test the sample, find the child if the test is out of range, get the child evaluated and tested for the condition, then send them for treatment. Given the time pressures as well as the coordination of numerous people and organizations, the fact that this happens routinely is amazing. And like any complex process, there is always room for improvement,” she says.

Dr. Tarini’s research efforts have focused on those process improvements.

As just one example, the Advisory Committee on Heritable Disorders in Newborns and Children, a federal advisory committee on which she serves, was discussing how to eliminate delays in specimen processing to provide speedier results to families. One possible solution floated was to open labs all seven days, rather than just five days a week. Dr. Tarini advocated for partnering with health care engineers who could help model ways to make the specimen transport process more efficient, just like airlines and mail delivery services. A more efficient and effective solution was to match the specimen pick-up and delivery times more closely with the lab’s operational times – which maximizes lab resources and shortens wait times for parents.

Conceptual modeling comes so easily for her that she often leaps out of her seat mid-sentence, underscoring a point by jotting thoughts on a white board, doing it so often that her pens have run dry.

“It’s like a bus schedule: You want to find a bus that not only takes you to your destination but gets you there on time,” she says.

Dr. Tarini’s current observational study looks for opportunities to improve how parents in Minnesota and Iowa are given out-of-range newborn screening test results – especially false positives – and how that experience might shake their confidence in their child’s health as well as heighten their own stress level.

“After a false positive test result, are there parents who walk away from newborn screening with lingering stress about their child’s health? Can we predict who those parents might be and help them?” she asks.

Among the challenges is the newborn screening occurs so quickly after delivery that some emotionally and physically exhausted parents may not remember it was done. Then they get a call from the state with ominous results. Another challenge is standardizing communication approaches across dozens of birthing centers and hospitals.

“We know parents are concerned after receiving a false positive result, and some worry their infant remains vulnerable,” she says. “Can we change how we communicate – not just what we say, but how we say it – to alleviate those concerns?”