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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.

An-Massaro

Looking for ‘help’ signals in the blood of newborns with HIE

An Massaro

“This data support our hypothesis that a panel of biomarkers – not a one-time test for a single biomarker – is needed to adequately determine the risk and timing of brain injury for babies with HIE,” says An N. Massaro, M.D.

Measuring a number of biomarkers over time that are produced as the body responds to inflammation and injury may help to pinpoint newborns who are more vulnerable to suffering lasting brain injury due to disrupted oxygen delivery and blood flow, according to research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) happens when blood and oxygen flow are disrupted around the time of birth and is a serious birth complication for full-term infants. To lessen the chance of these newborns suffering permanent brain injury, affected infants undergo therapeutic cooling, which temporarily lowers their body temperatures.

“Several candidate blood biomarkers have been investigated in HIE but we still don’t have one in clinical use.  We need to understand how these markers change over time before we can use them to direct care in patients,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., co-director of the Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “The newborns’ bodies sent out different ‘help’ signals that we detected in their bloodstream, and the markers had strikingly different time courses. A panel of plasma biomarkers has the potential to help us identify infants most in need of additional interventions, and to help us understand the most optimal timing for those interventions.”

Past research has keyed in on inflammatory cytokines and Tau protein as potential biomarkers of brain injury for infants with HIE who are undergoing therapeutic cooling. The research team led by Children’s faculty wanted to gauge which time periods to measure such biomarkers circulating in newborns’ bloodstreams. They enrolled 85 infants with moderate or severe HIE and tapped unused blood specimens that had been collected as cooling began, as well as 12, 24, 72 and 96 hours later. The infants’ mean gestational age was 38.7 weeks, their mean birth weight was about 7 pounds (3.2 kilograms), and 19% had severe brain disease (encephalopathy).

Cytokines – chemicals like Interleukin (IL) 6, 8 and 10 that regulate how the body responds to infection, inflammation and trauma – peaked in the first 24 hours of cooling for most of the newborns. However, the highest measure of Tau protein for the majority of newborns was during or after the baby’s temperature was restored to normal.

“After adjusting for clinical severity of encephalopathy and five-minute Apgar scores, IL-6, IL-8 and IL-10 predicted adverse outcomes, like severe brain injury or death, as therapeutic hypothermia began. By contrast, Tau protein measurements predicted adverse outcomes during and after the infants were rewarmed,” Dr. Massaro says.

IL-6 and IL-8 proteins are pro-inflammatory cytokines while IL-10 is considered anti-inflammatory.  These chemicals are released as a part of the immune response to brain injury. Tau proteins are abundant in nerve cells and stabilize microtubules.

“This data support our hypothesis that a panel of biomarkers – not a one-time test for a single biomarker – is needed to adequately determine the risk and timing of brain injury for babies with HIE,” she adds.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Serial plasma biomarkers of brain injury in infants with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) treated with therapeutic hypothermia (TH).”
    • Saturday, April 27, 2019, 6 p.m. (EST)

Meaghan McGowan, lead author; Alexandra C. O’Kane, co-author; Gilbert Vezina, M.D.,  director, Neuroradiology Program and co-author; Tae Chang, M.D., director, Neonatal Neurology Program and co-author; and An N. Massaro, M.D., co-director of the Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program and senior author; all of Children’s National; and co-author Allen Everett, of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

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.

An-Massaro

Keeping an eye on autonomic function for infants with HIE

An-Massaro

“By including heart rate variability measurements and other markers of autonomic function in our current predictive armamentarium,” says An Massaro, M.D., “we may be able to offer new hope for infants with HIE.”

In about two to three in every 1,000 full-term births, babies develop a neurological condition called hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) when their brains receive insufficient oxygen. HIE can be a devastating condition, leading to severe developmental or cognitive delays or motor impairments that become more evident as the child grows older. Despite improvements in care – including therapeutic hypothermia, a whole-body cooling method administered shortly after birth that can slow brain damage – about half of children with this condition die from neurological complications by age 2.

Finding ways to identify children with the most severe HIE could help researchers focus their efforts and provide even more intense neuroprotective care, explains An Massaro, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National Health System. But thus far, it’s been unclear which symptoms reflect the extent of HIE-induced brain damage.

That’s why Dr. Massaro and colleagues embarked on a study published in the May 2018 issue of Journal of Pediatrics. The team sought to determine whether dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – the auto-pilot part of the nervous system responsible for unconscious bodily functions, such as breathing and digestion – reflected in routine care events can be used as a marker for brain injury severity.

The researchers collected data from 25 infants who were treated for HIE with therapeutic hypothermia at Children’s National. Thanks to multi-modal monitoring, these babies’ medical records hold a treasure trove of information, explains Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., a staff scientist in Children’s Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab.

In addition to including continuous heart rate tracings and blood pressure readings that are standard for many infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), they also recorded cerebral near infrared spectroscopy, a monitor that measures brain tissue oxygen levels. The investigators performed detailed analyses to evaluate how these monitor readings change in response to a variety of routine care events, such as diaper changes, heel sticks, endotracheal tube manipulations and pupil examinations.

The researchers stratified these infants based on how dysfunctional their ANS behaved by using heart rate variability as a marker: The fewer natural fluctuations in heart rate, the more damaged their ANS was thought to be. And they also used non-invasive brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine brain damage. They then compared this information with the babies’ physiological responses during each care event.

Their findings show that infants with impaired ANS, based on depressed heart rate variability before the care event, had significantly different responses to these care events compared with babies with intact ANS.

  • For stimulating interventions, such as diaper changes and heel sticks, both heart rate and blood pressure increased in babies with intact ANS but decreased in babies with impaired ones.
  • Shining a light in their pupils led to an expected decreased heart rate with stable blood pressure in ANS-intact infants, but in ANS-impaired infants, there was no responsive change in heart rate and, additionally, a decrease in blood pressure was observed.
  • Responses were similar between the two groups during breathing tube manipulations, except for a slight increase in heart rate a few minutes later in the ANS-impaired group.

These results, Govindan explains, suggest that a real-time, continuous way to assess ANS function may offer insights into the expected physiological response for a given infant during routine NICU care.

“This is exactly the type of additional information that intensivists need to pinpoint infants who may benefit from additional neuroprotective support,” he says. “Right now, it is standard practice to monitor brain activity continuously using electroencephalogram and to check the status of the brain using MRI to assess the response to therapeutic cooling. Neither of these assessments can be readily used by neonatologists at the bedside in real-time to make clinical decisions.”

Assessing ANS function in real-time can help guide neuroprotective care in high-risk newborns by providing insight into the evolving nature of brain damage in these infants, Dr. Massaro adds.

Beyond simply serving as a biomarker into brain injury, poor ANS function also could contribute to the development of secondary injury in newborns with HIE by stymieing the normal changes in heart rate and blood pressure that help oxygenate and heal injured brains. The researchers found that the cumulative duration of autonomic impairment was significantly correlated with the severity of brain injury visible by MRI in this group of infants.

“By including heart rate variability measurements and other markers of autonomic function in our current predictive armamentarium,” says Dr. Massaro, “we may be able to offer new hope for infants with HIE.”

In addition to Dr. Massaro, the Senior Author, study co-authors include Lead Author, Heather Campbell, M.D.; Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., Children’s Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab; Srinivas Kota, Ph.D.; Tareq Al-Shargabi, M.S.; Marina Metzler, B.S.; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Children’s neonatalogist; Taeun Chang, M.D., Children’s neonatal and fetal neurologist; L. Gilbert Vezina, M.D., attending in Children’s Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; and Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., chief of Children’s Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine.

This research was supported by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National under awards UL1TR000075 and 1KL2RR031987-01 and the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Consortium within the National Institutes of Health under award P30HD040677.

Sudeepta Basu

GABA concentration in pre-term brain increases with gestational age

Sudeepta Basu

“A more complete understanding of the diagnostic and prognostic importance of GABA and glutamate in the preterm brain will help us to direct treatment strategies for the most vulnerable preterm infants at risk of brain injury,” says Sudeepta K. Basu, M.D.

The major neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate are pivotal to fetal and newborn brain development and influence evolution of brain injury and repair following preterm birth. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) enables in vivo measurement of brain metabolites. However, GABA and glutamate are found in the developing brain in low concentrations, and their weak signal can be swamped by the stronger signal of more dominant metabolites.

A Children’s research team reports findings from a pilot study utilizing an innovative technique of MRS to reliably measure in vivo GABA in the developing preterm brain. The groundbreaking research done by the team that includes Principal Investigator Sudeepta K. Basu, M.D., neonatology attending at Children’s National Health System, is very unique and original since there are no existing data of in vivo GABA concentrations in the developing cerebellum. Under the mentorship of Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of Children’s Developing Brain Research Laboratory, the team of multi-disciplinary specialists is pursuing cutting-edge technologies in advanced MRI neuroimaging to explore brain development and injury in preterm infants.

The research, presented at the Eastern Society for Pediatric Research (ESPR) annual meeting by Dr. Basu, was honored with the “2018 Meritorious Poster Award.” The research titled “Distinct temporal trends of GABA and glutamate in the cerebellum and frontal cortex of preterm infants” reports, for the first time, positive temporal trends in the specific regions of the developing brain intricately involved in cognitive and motor functions. This work lays the foundation for developing novel ways to diagnose, monitor and investigative brain protective therapies for vulnerable prematurely born infants.

The Children’s team performed non-sedated MRS in 44 preterm infants whose mean gestational age at birth was 26.5 weeks, placing voxels at the middle of the cerebellum and the right frontal cortex. GABA and GIx (glutamate combined with glutamine) were positively correlated with post-menstrual age in the frontal cortex, but not the cerebellum.  At the ESPR meeting, the team also presented for the first time that caffeine, a neuroprotective agent in preemies, leads to increased in vivo GABA concentration in the developing frontal cortex.

“Open questions include whether these findings reflect varying paces of maturation and vulnerability to injury among specific regions of the brain. Also, the relationship between clinical factors and medication exposure and changes in the concentration of these neurotransmitters may guide brain protective therapies in future,” Dr. Basu says. “A more complete understanding of the diagnostic and prognostic importance of GABA and glutamate in the preterm brain will help us to direct treatment strategies for the most vulnerable preterm infants at risk of brain injury.”

Children’s senior fellows from Division of Neonatology made four platform presentations during the ESPR conference:

  • “Caffeine increases GABA/Cr ratio in frontal cortex of preterm infants on spectroscopy.” Aditi Gupta; Sudeepta K. Basu, M.D.; Mariam Said, M.D.; Subechhya Pradhan, Linda White; Kushal Kapse; Jonathan Murnick, M.D., Ph.D.; Taeun Chang, M.D.; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.
  • “Impact of early nutrition on microstructural brain development in VLBW Infants.” Katherine M. Ottolini, Nickie Andescavage, M.D.; Kushal Kapse; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.
  • “Direct measurement of neonatal cardiac output utilizing the CO status monitor.” Simranjeet S. Sran, Mariam Said, M.D.; and Khodayar Rais-Bahrami, M.D.
  • “Cerebro-cerebellar diaschisis in preterm infants following unilateral cerebral parenchymal injury.” Huma Mirza, Yao Wu, Kushal Kapse, Jonathan Murnick, M.D., Ph.D.; Taeun Chang, M.D.; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.
nurse holding newborn baby

Continuous EEG monitoring better predicts HIE outcomes

nurse holding newborn baby

For newborns who experience a serious complication that deprives their brain of oxygen, continuously monitoring brain activity and examining how the electrical signals evolve may be a more reliable way to identify infants most at risk for brain injury.

For newborns who experience a serious complication that deprives their brain of oxygen, continuously monitoring brain activity and examining how the electrical signals evolve may be a more reliable way to identify infants most at risk for brain injury, compared with doing evaluations at discreet intervals, according to a prospective cohort study led by Children’s National Health System research-clinicians.

Amplitude-integrated electroencephalogram (aEEG) is a bedside tool that permits clinicians to monitor the complex electrical activity of the child’s brain over time. It’s a positive sign when an aEEG shows babies beginning to sleep and wake normally by the time they are 3 days old. Conversely, severely abnormal aEEG readings in the first days of life predict poor outcomes.

The Children’s team used aEEG with infants born with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), one of the most severe complications that can affect full-term infants. During pregnancy, birth or shortly after birth, a hypoxic-ischemic event can occur that impedes blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, resulting in destruction of brain tissue. Cooling (therapeutic hypothermia) is now standard for newborns with HIE in order to stave off life-long consequences, but deaths and neurodevelopmental disability still can occur.

“We know whole-body cooling – or lowering the body’s temperature by about 3 degrees Celsius – can help vulnerable newborns survive and can protect their brains from suffering profound injuries,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., a Children’s National neonatologist and senior author of the study published online Sept. 28, 2017 in American Journal of Perinatology.  “What we were trying to determine with this study is whether evaluating the pattern of evolution of the aEEG as a whole provides more information compared with looking at snapshots in time.”

Eighty infants undergoing therapeutic cooling who met the inclusion criteria were enrolled in the five-year study, one of the largest such studies to date. The babies weighed more than 1,800 grams and were older than 35 weeks’ gestational age at birth, and either needed prolonged resuscitation after birth or had low APGAR scores – a measure of how well newborns fare outside the womb. Continuous recordings of EEG data occurred from the time of admission up to 12 hours after the infants’ temperatures were raised to normal and aEEG tracings were calculated.

After the therapeutic cooling blankets were removed, the infants underwent at least one magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan prior to discharge. During the routine follow-up check at about 18 months of age, the HIE survivors’ cognitive and motor skills were assessed using validated instruments.

Fifty-six of the infants in the study had favorable outcomes. Twenty-four infants had adverse outcomes, including 15 with severe brain injury detected by MRI and nine infants who died. These children had lower APGAR scores at five minutes, and were more likely to have severe HIE and to have experienced more frequent seizures.

“Infants whose aEEG abnormalities do not improve were at increased risk: Infants who do not reach a discontinuous background pattern by 15.5 hours of life, achieve cycling by 45.5 hours after birth and who fail to achieve continuous normal voltage by 78 hours after birth are most at risk for adverse outcomes,” Dr. Massaro says. “In addition to defining worrisome trends, we found that overall assessment of continuous aEEG readings through the course of hypothermia treatment provide the most meaningful predictive power. This means we can speak with families at the bedside with more confidence about their child’s outcomes after the infant undergoes cooling therapy.”

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Altered blood flow may contribute to preemie brain injuries

A Children’s National research team for the first time mapped abnormalities in blood flow that may contribute to brain injury suffered by preterm infants.

Advanced noninvasive imaging permitted Children’s National Health System researchers to measure the lasting impact of abnormalities in blood flow on the immature brains of premature babies. Blood flow to the brain, or perfusion, has been studied previously to understand its role in other health conditions, but this is the first time a research team has mapped how these changes may contribute to brain injury suffered by babies born before 32 weeks’ gestation.

Preterm birth is a major risk factor for brain injury. The prospective study examined infants weighing less than 1,500 grams who were born prior to 32 gestational weeks.

Of 78 infants studied, 47 had structural brain injuries categorized as either mild or moderate to severe, and 31 had no brain injury. While global cerebral blood flow decreased with advancing postnatal age, the blood flow decreased more significantly among preterm infants with brain injury, says Eman S. Mahdi, M.D., M.B.Ch.B. Dr. Mahdi is a pediatric radiology fellow at Children’s National and lead author of the abstract.

“In addition to differences in global brain blood flow, we saw a marked decrease in regional blood flow to the thalamus and the pons, regions known to be metabolically active during this time,” Dr. Mahdi says. The thalamus helps to process information from the senses and relays it elsewhere within the brain. Located at the base of the brain, the pons is part of the central nervous system and also is a critical relay of information between the cerebrum and cerebellum. “These regional variations in blood flow reflect vulnerability of the cerebral-cerebellar circuitry,” she adds.

The Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) recognized Dr. Mahdi with its Trainee Research Prize. She presented the work, “Cerebral Perfusion Is Perturbed by Preterm Birth and Brain Injury,” during the RSNA Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting, held from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2.

The findings point to the need for additional research to explore how cerebral blood flow trends evolve as preemies grow older and whether abnormal blood flow is linked to differences in health outcomes. In addition, the technique used by the research team, arterial spin labeling perfusion imaging – a type of magnetic resonance imaging – represents a useful and non-invasive technology for identifying early cerebral perfusion abnormalities in preterm infants, says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and abstract senior author.