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Study authors Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D. and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Children’s perinatal hypoxia research lauded

Study authors Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D. and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Study authors Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D. and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Chronic sublethal hypoxia is associated with locomotor miscoordination and long-term cerebellar learning deficits in a clinically relevant model of neonatal brain injury, according to a study led by Children’s National Health System researchers published by Nature Communications. Using high-tech optical and physiological methods that allow researchers to turn neurons on and off and an advanced behavioral tool, the research team found that Purkinje cells fire significantly less often after injury due to perinatal hypoxia.

The research team leveraged a fully automated, computerized apparatus – an Erasmus Ladder – to test experimental models’ adaptive cerebellar locomotor learning skills, tracking their missteps as well as how long it took the models to learn the course.

The research project, led by Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., a Children’s postdoctoral research fellow, was honored with a F1000 primevery good rating.” The Children’s research team used both quantitative behavior tests and electrophysiological assays, “a valuable and objective platform for functional assessment of targeted therapeutics in neurological disorders,” according to the recommendation on a digital forum in which the world’s leading scientists and clinicians highlight the best articles published in the field.

Calling the Erasmus Ladder an “elegant” behavioral system, Richard Lu, Ph.D., and Kalen Berry write that the Children’s National Health System research team “revealed locomotor behavior and cerebellar learning deficits, and further utilized multielectrode recording/optogenetics approaches to define critical pathophysiological features, such as defects in Purkinje cell firing after neonatal brain injury.”

Lu, Beatrice C. Lampkin Endowed Chair in Cancer Epigenetics, and Berry, an associate faculty member in the Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute, both at Cincinnati Children’s, note that the Children’s results “suggest that GABA signaling may represent a potential therapeutic target for hypoxia-related neonatal brain injury that, if provided at the correct time during development post-injury, could offer lifelong improvements.”

In addition to Sathyanesan, Children’s co-authors include Co-Lead Author, Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D., and Joseph Abbah, both of Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research, and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s Chief Research Officer and the study’s senior author.

Research covered in this story was supported by the Intellectual and Developmental Disability Research Center under award number U54HD090257.

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.

Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., honored with Senator Jacob Javits Award in the Neurosciences

Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s Chief Research Officer, has been awarded a prestigious Senator Jacob Javits Award in the Neurosciences, which extends federal funding for Gallo’s lab for at least seven years. The long-term support is offered to “investigators with a history of exceptional talent, imagination and preeminent scientific achievement.”

Only National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) staff members or NINDS Council members may nominate researchers for the coveted awards, named in honor of Sen. Jacob Javits, (R-New York). Before his death, Sen. Javits advocated for additional research in a wide variety of disorders of the brain and nervous system.

“It’s a great recognition from the neuroscience community and from NINDS for contributions to neuroscience and outstanding service to the neuroscience community,” Gallo says. “It’s also very exciting because it gives additional national visibility to our Center for Neuroscience Research and to Children’s National Health System, as one of the nation’s leading research institutions.”

Through the award, Gallo’s successful five-year Research Project Grant from the National Institutes of Health will be converted to a seven-year award. In the fourth year of federal funding, he can apply for a budgetary increase.

“Thanks to this funding, I predict we will be able to identify cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie developmental delays in children who experienced neonatal brain injury,” Gallo says.

“We are really starting to understand this very complex problem: How does neonatal brain injury lead to developmental delays later in a child’s life? What are the mechanisms? We know there are cognitive and behavioral abnormalities that are common to children who have experienced hypoxia as newborns. But we don’t really know how these behavioral abnormalities arise at the physiological, cellular and molecular levels.”

Gallo says identifying these cellular targets will make it possible to tailor interventions that target distinct cell types at different times in the child’s life.

Recent work by Gallo’s lab includes a research paper published online Aug. 13, 2018, by Nature Communications that found chronic sublethal hypoxia is associated with locomotor miscoordination and long-term cerebellar learning deficits in a clinically relevant model of neonatal brain injury.

toddler on a playground

Perinatal hypoxia associated with long-term cerebellar learning deficits and Purkinje cell misfiring

toddler on a playground

The type of hypoxia that occurs with preterm birth is associated with locomotor miscoordination and long-term cerebellar learning deficits but can be partially alleviated with an off-the-shelf medicine, according to a study using a preclinical model.

Oxygen deprivation associated with preterm birth leaves telltale signs on the brains of newborns in the form of alterations to cerebellar white matter at the cellular and the physiological levels. Now, an experimental model of this chronic hypoxia reveals that those cellular alterations have behavioral consequences.

Chronic sublethal hypoxia is associated with locomotor miscoordination and long-term cerebellar learning deficits in a clinically relevant model of neonatal brain injury, according to a study led by Children’s National Health System researchers published online Aug. 13, 2018, by Nature Communications. Using high-tech optical and physiological methods that allow researchers to turn neurons on and off and an advanced behavioral tool, the research team finds that Purkinje cells fire significantly less often after injury due to perinatal hypoxia. However, an off-the-shelf medicine now used to treat epilepsy enables those specialized brain cells to regain their ability to fire, improving locomotor performance.

Step out of the car onto the pavement, hop up to the level of the curb, stride to the entrance, and climb a flight of stairs. Or, play a round of tennis. The cerebellum coordinates such locomotor performance and muscle memory, guiding people of all ages as they adapt to a changing environment.

“Most of us successfully coordinate our movements to navigate the three-dimensional spaces we encounter daily,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s Chief Research Officer and the study’s senior author. “After children start walking, they also have to learn how to navigate the environment and the spaces around them.”

These essential tasks, Gallo says, are coordinated by Purkinje cells, large neurons located in the cerebellum that are elaborately branched like interlocking tree limbs and represent the only source of output for the entire cerebellar cortex. The rate of development of the fetal cerebellum dramatically increases at a time during pregnancy that often coincides with preterm birth, which can delay or disrupt normal brain development.

“It’s almost like a short circuit. Purkinje cells play a very crucial role, and when the frequency of their firing is diminished by injury the whole output of this brain region is impaired,” Gallo says. “For a family of a child who has this type of impaired neural development, if we understand the nature of this disrupted circuitry and can better quantify it, in terms of locomotor performance, then we can develop new therapeutic approaches.”

Study authors Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D. and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

The research team leveraged a fully automated, computerized apparatus that looks like a ladder placed on a flat surface, encased in glass, with a darkened box at either end. Both the hypoxic and control groups had training sessions during which they learned how to traverse the horizontal ladder, coaxed out of the darkened room by a gentle puff of air and a light cue. Challenge sessions tested their adaptive cerebellar locomotor learning skills. The pads they strode across were pressure-sensitive and analyzed individual stepping patterns to predict how long it should take each to complete the course.

During challenge sessions, obstacles were presented in the course, announced by an audible tone. If learning was normal, then the response to the tone paired with the obstacle would be a quick adjustment of movement, without breaking stride, says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., co-lead author. Experimental models exposed to perinatal hypoxia showed significant deficits in associating that tone with the obstacle.

“With the control group, we saw fewer missteps during any given trial,” Sathyanesan says. “And, when they got really comfortable, they took longer steps. With the hypoxic group, it took them longer to learn the course. They made a significantly higher number of missteps from day one. By the end of the training period, they could walk along all of the default rungs, but it took them longer to learn how to do so.”

Purkinje cells fire two different kinds of spikes. Simple spikes are a form of constant activity as rhythmic and automatic as a heartbeat. Complex spikes, by contrast, occur less frequently. Sathyanesan and co-authors say that some of the deficits that they observed were due to a reduction in the frequency of simple spiking.

Two weeks after experiencing hypoxia, the hypoxic group’s locomotor performance remained significantly worse than the control group, and delays in learning could still be seen five weeks after hypoxia.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter, excites immature neurons before and shortly after birth but soon afterward switches to having an inhibitory effect within in the cerebellum, Sathyanesan says. The research team hypothesizes that reduced levels of excitatory GABA during early development leads to long-term motor problems. Using an off-the-shelf drug to increase GABA levels immediately after hypoxia dramatically improved locomotor performance.

“Treating experimental models with tiagabine after hypoxic injury elevates GABA levels, partially restoring Purkinje cells’ ability to fire,” Gallo says. “We now know that restoring GABA levels during this specific window of time has a beneficial effect. However, our approach was not specifically targeted to Purkinje cells. We elevated GABA everywhere in the brain. With more targeted and selective administration to Purkinje cells, we want to gauge whether tiagabine has a more powerful effect on normalizing firing frequency.”

In addition to Gallo and Sathyanesan, Children’s co-authors include Co-Lead Author, Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D., and Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., both of Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research.

Research covered in this story was supported by the Intellectual and Developmental Disability Research Center under award number U54HD090257.

LCModel output from 32 GA baby

Understanding the long-term consequences of prematurity

LCModel output from 32 GA baby

Children’s National Health System researchers processed H1-MRS data using LCModel software to calculate absolute metabolite concentrations for N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA), choline (Cho) and creatine (Cr). Preterm infants had significantly lower cerebellar NAA (p=<0.025) and higher Cho (p=<0.001) when compared with healthy term-equivalent infants. The area of the brain within the red box is the cerebellum, the region of interest for this study.

Premature birth, a condition that affects approximately 10 percent of births in the United States, often is accompanied by health problems ranging from difficulties breathing and eating to long-term neurocognitive delays and disabilities. However, the reasons for these problems have been unclear.

In a study published online Aug. 15, 2017 in Scientific Reports, a team of Children’s National Health System clinician-researchers reports that prematurity is associated with altered metabolite profiles in the infants’ cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls coordination and balance. Pre-term infants in the study had significantly lower levels of a chemical marker of nerve cell integrity and significantly higher concentrations of a chemical marker of cellular membrane turnover.

“These data suggest that interrupting the developing fetal brain’s usual growth plan during gestation – which can occur through early birth, infection or experiencing brain damage – might trigger a compensatory mechanism. The infant’s brain tries to make up for lost time or heal injured tissue by producing a certain type of cells more quickly than it normally would,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior study author. “The more sensitive imaging technique that we used also revealed nerve cell damage from brain injuries extends beyond the site of injury, a finding that contrasts with what is found through conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).”

It has long been clear that prematurity – birth before 37 weeks gestation – is accompanied by a number of immediate and long-term complications, from potential problems breathing and feeding at birth to impairments in hearing and sight that can last throughout an individual’s life.

Neurocognitive developmental delays often accompany pre-term birth, many of which can have long-lasting consequences. Studies have shown that children born prematurely are more likely to struggle in school, have documented learning disabilities and experience significant delays in developing gross and fine motor skills compared with children born at full-term.

Several studies have investigated the root cause of these issues in the cerebrum, the structure that takes up the majority of the brain and is responsible for functions including learning and memory, language and communication, sensory processing and movement. However, the cerebellum – a part of the brain that plays an important role in motor control – has not received as much research attention.

In the new study, Limperopoulos and colleagues used a specialized MRI technique that allowed them to parse out differences in which molecules are present in the cerebellum of full-term infants compared with premature infants. Their findings show a variety of differences that could offer clues to explain developmental differences between these two populations – and potentially identify ways to intervene to improve outcomes.

The researchers recruited 59 premature infants, born at 32 or fewer weeks’ gestation, and 61 healthy, full-term infants. Each baby received a special type of MRI known as proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or H1-MRS, that measures the concentrations of particular molecules in the brain. The full-term infants had these MRIs shortly after birth; the pre-term infants had them at 39 to 41 weeks gestational age, or around the time that they would have been born had the pregnancy continued to term.

Looking specifically at the cerebellum, the researchers found that the pre-term infants overall had significantly lower concentrations of N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA), a marker of the integrity of nerve cells. They also had significantly higher concentrations of choline, a marker of cell membrane integrity and membrane turnover.

Concentrations of creatine, a marker of stores of cellular energy, were about the same overall between the two groups. However, the researchers found that brain injuries, which affected 35 of the pre-term infants but none of the full-term infants, were associated with significantly lower concentrations of NAA, choline and creatine. Having a neonatal infection, which affected 21 of the pre-term infants but none of the full-term ones, was associated with lower NAA and creatine.

The findings could offer insight into exactly what’s happening in the brain when infants are born pre-term and when these vulnerable babies develop infections or their brains become injured – conditions that convey dramatically higher risks for babies born too early, Limperopoulos says. The differences between the full-term babies and the pre-term ones reflect disturbances these cells are experiencing at a biochemical level, she explains.

Limperopoulos and colleagues note that more research will be necessary to connect these findings to what is already known about developmental problems in pre-term infants. Eventually, she says, scientists might be able to use this knowledge to develop treatments that might be able to change the course of brain development in babies born too early, getting them on track with infants born at term.

“We know that the bodies of pre-term infants demonstrate a remarkable ability to catch up with peers who were born at full-term, in terms of weight and height. Our challenge is to ensure that preemies’ brains also have an opportunity to develop as normally as possible to ensure optimal long-term outcomes,” Limperopoulos says.