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Autonomic nervous system appears to function well regardless of mode of childbirth

Late in pregnancy, the human body carefully prepares fetuses for the rigors of life outside the protection of the womb. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, ramp up and spike during labor. Catecholamines, another stress hormone, also rise at birth, helping to kick start the necessary functions that the baby will need to regulate breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and energy metabolism levels at delivery. Oxytocin surges, promoting contractions for the mother during labor and stimulating milk production after the infant is born.

These processes also can play a role in preparing the fetal brain during the transition to life outside the womb by readying the autonomic nervous system and adapting its cerebral connections. The autonomic nervous system acts like the body’s autopilot, taking in information it needs to ensure that internal organs run steadily without willful action, such as ensuring the heart beats and eyelids blink at steady intervals. Its yin, the sympathetic division, stimulates body processes while its yang, the parasympathetic division, inhibits them.

Infants born preterm have reduced autonomic function compared with their full-term peers and also face possible serious neurodevelopmental impairment later in life. But is there a difference in autonomic nervous system function for full-term babies after undergoing labor compared with infants delivered via cesarean section (C-section)?

A team from the Children’s National Inova Collaborative Research Program (CNICA) – a research collaboration between Children’s National in Washington, D.C., and Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Virginia – set out to answer that question in a paper published online July 30, 2019, in Scientific Reports.

They enrolled newborns who had experienced normal, full-term pregnancies and recorded their brain function and heart performance when they were about 2 days old. Infants whose conditions were fragile enough to require observation in the neonatal intensive care unit were excluded from the study. Of 167 infants recruited for the prospective cohort study, 118 newborns had sufficiently robust data to include them in the research.  Of these newborns:

  • 62 (52.5%) were born by vaginal delivery
  • 22 (18.6%) started out with vaginal delivery but ultimately switched to C-section based on failure to progress, failed labor induction or fetal intolerance to labor
  • And 34 (28.8%) were born by elective C-section.

The CNICA research team swaddled infants for comfort and slipped electrode nets over their tiny heads to simultaneously measure heart rate variability and electrocortical function through non-invasive techniques. The team hypothesized that infants who had been exposed to labor would have enhanced autonomic tone and higher cortical electroencephalogram (EEG) power than babies born via C-section.

“In a low-risk group of babies born full-term, the autonomic nervous system and cortical systems appear to function well regardless of whether infants were exposed to labor prior to birth,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetalneonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

However, infants born by C-section following a period of labor had significantly increased accelerations in their heart rates. And the infants born by C-section during labor had significantly lower relative gamma frequency EEG at 25.2 hours old compared with the other two groups studied.

“Together these findings point to a possible increased stress response and arousal difference in infants who started with vaginal delivery and finished delivery with C-section,” Dr. Mulkey says. “There is so little published research about the neurologic impacts of the mode of delivery, so our work helps to provide a normal reference point for future studies looking at high-risk infants, including babies born preterm.”

Because the research team saw little differences in autonomic tone or other EEG frequencies when the infants were 1 day old, future research will explore these measures at different points in the newborns’ early life as well as the role of the sleep-wake cycle on heart rate variability.

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Srinivas Kota, Ph.D., Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., Tareq Al-Shargabi, MSc, Christopher B. Swisher, BS, Laura Hitchings, BScM, Stephanie Russo, BS, Nicole Herrera, MPH, Robert McCarter, ScD, and Senior Author Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, all of Children’s National; and Augustine Eze Jr., MS, G. Larry Maxwell, M.D., and Robin Baker, M.D., all of Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences under award numbers UL1TR001876 and KL2TR001877.

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.

Baby in the NICU

Getting to the heart of cardiac output

Baby in the NICU

To keep infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as healthy as possible, it’s important to keep close tabs on their vital signs. During their NICU stay, most babies have continuous monitoring of their blood pressure, respiratory rate and blood oxygen saturation. And although continuous monitoring of heart rate is also typically standard, other information about heart function – such as cardiac output, a measure of how well the heart is pumping blood – remains a challenge to obtain in these vulnerable babies.

Clinical markers like blood pressure, heart rate and urine output are available, but they are indirect measures of cardiac output, how much blood the heart pumps per minute. Less invasive techniques, such as Doppler ultrasound, can be imprecise. Respiratory mass spectrometry or catherization would provide more precision by directly calcuating cardiac output but carry risks or are not feasible for neonates.

Clinicians at Children’s National Health System hypothesized that COstatus monitors could offer a way to directly measure cardiac output among neonates. The COstatus monitor – a minimally invasive way to measure hemodynamics – captures cardiac output, total end diastolic volume, active circulation volume and central blood volume.

The research team tested the approach by leveraging ultrasound dilution: Injecting saline, which has an ultrasound velocity of 1533m/second, slows the ultrasound velocity of blood from its normal rate of 1580m/second and produces a dilution curve.

“It is feasible to directly measure neonatal cardiac output by ultrasound dilution via the COstatus monitor in the first two weeks of life with no adverse events,” says Khodayar Rais-Bahrami, M.D., a Children’s neonatologist and senior author for the research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2018 annual meeting. “When we took consecutive measurements, we saw very little variance in the parameters.”

The COstatus monitor uses an extracorporeal loop that is connected to arterial and venous catheters. The 12 neonates included in the study already had umbilical venous catheters as well as either a peripheral arterial line or umbilical arterial catheter. The infants ranged in weight from 0.72 to 3.74 kg and were born at 24 to 41.3 gestational weeks.

The infants’ cardiac output was measured 54 times from 1 to 13 days of life. Up to two measurement sessions occurred daily for a maximum of four days. The mean cardiac output was 0.43 L/minute with a mean cardiac index of 197mL/kg/minute.

Future research will describe normal cardiac output ranges for neonates as well as how these measurements evolve during the first week of life.

In addition to Dr. Rais-Bahrami, study co-authors include Simranjeet S. Sran, M.D., and Mariam Said, M.D., a Children’s neonatologist.

newborn in incubator

Tracking oxygen saturation with vital signs to identify vulnerable preemies

 

Khodayar-Rais-Bahrami

What’s known

Critically ill infants in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) require constant monitoring of their vital signs. Invasive methods, such as using umbilical arterial catheters to check blood pressure, are the gold standard but pose significant health risks. Low-risk noninvasive monitoring, such as continuous cardiorespiratory monitors, can measure heart rate, respiratory rate and blood oxygenation. A noninvasive technique called near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) can gauge how well tissues, including the brain, are oxygenated. While NIRS long has been used to monitor oxygenation in conditions in which blood flow is altered, such as bleeding in the brain, how NIRS values relate to other vital sign measures in NICU babies was unknown.

What’s new

A research team led by Khodayar Rais-Bahrami, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National Health System, investigated this question in 27 babies admitted to Children’s NICU. The researchers separated these subjects into two groups: Low birth weight (LBW, less than 1.5 kg or 3.3 pounds) and moderate birth weight (MBW, more than 1.5 kg). Then, they looked for correlations between information extracted from NIRS, such as tissue oxygenation (specific tissue oxygen saturation, StO2) and the balance between oxygen supply and consumption (fractional tissue oxygen extraction, FTOE), and various vital signs. They found that StO2 increased with blood pressure for LBW babies but decreased with blood pressure for MBW babies. Brain and body FTOE in LBW babies decreased with blood pressure. In babies with abnormal brain scans, brain StO2 increased with blood pressure and brain FTOE decreased with blood pressure. Together, the researchers suggest, these measures could give a more complete picture of critically ill babies’ health.

Questions for future research

Q: Can NIRS data be used as a surrogate for other forms of monitoring?

Q: How could NIRS data help health care professionals intervene to improve the health of critically ill infants in the NICU?

Source: Significant correlation between regional tissue oxygen saturation and vital signs of critically ill infants.” B. Massa-Buck, V. Amendola, R. McCloskey and K. Rais-Bahrami. Published by Frontiers in Pediatrics Dec. 21, 2017.