Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research postdoctoral fellow in the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System, has received a Thrasher Research Fund early career award to expand knowledge about regions of the fetal brain that are vulnerable to injury from congenital heart disease (CHD) during pregnancy.
CHD, the most common birth defect, can have lasting effects, including overall health issues; difficulty achieving milestones such as crawling, walking or running; and missed days at daycare or school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brain injury is a major complication for infants born with CHD. Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of Children’s brain imaging lab, was the first to provide in vivo evidence that fetal brain growth and metabolism in the third trimester of pregnancy is impaired within the womb.
“It remains unclear which specific regions of the fetal brain are more vulnerable to these insults in utero,” Limperopoulos says. “We first need to identify early brain abnormalities attributed to CHD and understand their impact on infants’ later behavioral and cognitive development in order to better counsel parents and effectively intervene during the prenatal period to safeguard brain health.”
During the last few weeks of pregnancy, certain regions of the fetal brain experience exponential growth but also are more vulnerable to injury during that high-growth period. The grant, $26,749 over two years, will underwrite “Brain Development in Fetuses With Congenital Heart Disease,” research that enables Wu to utilize quantitative, non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare fetal brain development in pregnancies complicated by CHD with brain development in healthy fetuses of the same gestational age.Wu will leverage quantitative, in vivo 3-D volumetric MRI to compare overall fetal and neonatal brain growth as well as growth in key regions including cortical grey matter, white matter, deep grey matter, lateral ventricles, external cerebrospinal fluid, cerebellum, brain stem, amygdala and the hippocampus.
The research is an offshoot of a prospective study funded by the National Institutes of Health that uses advanced imaging techniques to record brain growth in 50 fetuses in pregnancies complicated by CHD who need open heart surgery and 50 healthy fetuses. MRI studies are conducted during the second trimester (24 to 28 weeks gestational age), third trimester (33 to 37 weeks gestational age) and shortly after birth but before surgery. In addition, fetal and neonatal MRI measurements will be correlated with validated scales that measure infants’ and toddlers’ overall development, behavior and social/emotional maturity.
“I am humbled to be selected for this prestigious award,” Wu says. “The findings from our ongoing work could be instrumental in identifying strategies for clinicians and care teams managing high-risk pregnancies to optimize fetal brain development and infants’ overall quality of life.”
In 2017, clinicians and research faculty working at Children’s National Health System published more than 850 research articles about a wide array of topics. A multidisciplinary Children’s Research Institute review group selected the top 10 articles for the calendar year considering, among other factors, work published in high-impact academic journals.
“This year’s honorees showcase how our multidisciplinary institutes serve as vehicles to bring together Children’s specialists in cross-cutting research and clinical collaborations,” says Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., Physician-in-Chief and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National. “We’re honored that the National Institutes of Health and other funders have provided millions in awards that help to ensure that these important research projects continue.”
The published papers explain research that includes using imaging to describe the topography of the developing brains of infants with congenital heart disease, how high levels of iron may contribute to neural tube defects and using an incisionless surgery method to successfully treat osteoid osteoma. The top 10 Children’s papers:
- The role of reactive oxygen species in starting the process of repairing myofiber
- The importance of restoring neural stem/progenitor cells’ neurogenic potential to lessen long-term neurological deficits
- Functional impairment of the brains of infants with congenital heart disease prior to corrective open heart surgery
- Altered regional cerebral blood flow as an early warning sign of disturbed brain maturation
- Excess production of transcription factor Heat Shock Factor 1 can contribute to impairing the embryonic brain
- High levels of iron supplementation and iron overload may contribute to neural tube defects
- In a small study, 18F-fluorothymidine imaging identified subclinical bone-marrow recovery within five days of allogenic haemopoietic stem-cell infusion
- An experimental model exposed to di-2-ethylhexyl-phthalate experienced altered autonomic regulation, heart rate variability and cardiovascular reactivity
- Osteoid osteoma can be safely treated using magnetic resonance-guided high-intensity focused ultrasound and
- Racial and ethnic disparities in pediatric readmission rates vary for chronic conditions such as asthma, depression, diabetes, migraines and seizures.
Read the complete list.
Dr. Batshaw’s announcement comes on the eve of Research and Education Week 2018 at Children’s National, a weeklong event that begins April 16, 2018. This year’s theme, “Diversity powers innovation,” underscores the cross-cutting nature of Children’s research that aims to transform pediatric care.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded researchers at Children’s National Health System $2.6 million to expand their studies into whether human stem cells could someday treat and even reverse neurological damage in infants born with congenital heart disease (CHD).
Researchers estimate that 1.3 million infants are born each year with CHD, making it the most common major birth defect. Over the past 30 years, advances in medical technology and surgical practices have dramatically decreased the percentage of infants who die from CHD – from a staggering rate of nearly 100 percent just a few decades ago to the current mortality rate of less than 10 percent.
The increased survival rate comes with new challenges: Children with complex CHD are increasingly diagnosed with significant neurodevelopmental delay or impairment. Clinical studies demonstrate that CHD can reduce oxygen delivery to the brain, a condition known as hypoxia, which can severely impair brain development in fetuses and newborns whose brains are developing rapidly.
Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., the study’s lead investigator with the Center for Neuroscience Research and director of the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory at Children’s National, proposes transfusing human stem cells in experimental models through the cardio-pulmonary bypass machine used during cardiac surgery.
“These cells can then identify the injury sites,” says Dr. Ishibashi. “Once these cells arrive at the injury site, they communicate with endogenous tissues, taking on the abilities of the damaged neurons or glia cells they are replacing.”
“Bone marrow stem cells are used widely for stroke patients, for heart attack patients and for those with developmental diseases,” adds Dr. Ishibashi. “But they’ve never been used to treat the brains of infants with congenital heart disease. That’s why we are trying to understand how well this system might work for our patient population.”
Dr. Ishibashi says the research team will focus on three areas during their four-year study – whether the stem cells:
- Reduce neurological inflammation,
- Reverse or halt injury to the brain’s white matter and
- Help promote neurogenesis in the subventricular zone, the largest niche in the brain for creating the neural stem/progenitor cells leading to cortical growth in the developing brain.
At the conclusion of the research study, Dr. Ishibashi says the hope is to develop robust data so that someday an effective treatment will be available and lasting neurological damage in infants with congenital heart disease will become a thing of the past.
Mortality rates for infants born with congenital heart disease (CHD) have dramatically decreased over the past two decades, with more and more children reaching adulthood. However, many survivors are at risk for neurodevelopmental abnormalities associated with cardiopulmonary bypass surgery (CPB), including long-term injuries to the brain’s white matter and neural connectivity impairments that can lead to neurological dysfunction.
“Clinical studies have found a connection between abnormal neurological outcomes and surgery, but we don’t know what’s happening at the cellular level,” explains Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., Director of the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory at Children’s National. To help shed light on this matter, Ishibashi and a team of researchers looked at the effects of CPB on the white matter of an animal model.
The research team randomly assigned models to receive one of three CPB-induced insults: a sham surgery (control group); full-flow bypass for 60 minutes; and 25°C circulatory arrest for 60 minutes. The team then used fractional anisotropy — a technique that measures the directionality of axon mylenation — to determine white matter organization in the models’ brains. They also used immunohistology techniques to assess the integrity of white matter oligodendrocytes, astrocytes and microglia.
The results, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, show that white matter experiences region-specific vulnerability to insults associated with CPB, with fibers within the frontal cortex appearing the most susceptible. The team also found that fractional anisotropy changes after CPB were insult dependent and that regions most resilient to CPB-induced fractional anisotropy reduction were those that maintained mature oligodendrocytes.
From these findings, Ishibashi and his co-authors conclude that reducing alterations of oligodendrocyte development in the frontal cortex can be both a metric and a goal to improve neurodevelopmental impairment in the congenital heart disease population. “Because we are seeing cellular damage in these regions, we can target them for future therapies,” explains Ishibashi.
The study also demonstrates the dynamic relationship between fractional anisotropy and cellular events after pediatric cardiac surgery, and indicates that the technique is a clinically relevant biomarker in white matter injury after cardiac surgery.
Newborns with congenital heart disease (CHD) requiring open-heart surgery face a higher risk for neurodevelopmental disabilities, yet prior studies had not examined whether functional brain connectivity is altered in these infants before surgery.
Findings from a Children’s National Health System study of this question suggest the presence of brain dysfunction early in the lives of infants with CHD that may be associated with neurodevelopmental impairments years later.
Using a novel imaging technique, Children’s National researchers demonstrated for the first time that the brains of these high-risk infants already show signs of functional impairment even before they undergo corrective open heart surgery. Looking at the newborns’ entire brain topography, the team found intact global organization – efficient and effective small world networks – yet reduced functional connectivity between key brain regions.
“A robust neural network is critical for neurons to travel to their intended destinations and for the body to carry out nerve cells’ instructions. In this study, we found the density of connections among rich club nodes was diminished, and there was reduced connectivity between critical brain hubs,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior author of the study published online Sept. 28, 2017 in NeuroImage: Clinical. “CHD disrupts how oxygenated blood flows throughout the body, including to the brain. Despite disturbed hemodynamics, infants with CHD still are able to efficiently transfer neural information among neighboring areas of the brain and across distant regions.”
The research team led by Josepheen De Asis-Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., compared whole brain functional connectivity in 82 healthy, full-term newborns and 30 newborns with CHD prior to corrective heart surgery. Conventional imaging had detected no brain injuries in either group. The team used resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fcMRI), a imaging technique that characterizes fluctuating blood oxygen level dependent signals from different regions of the brain, to map the effect of CHD on newborns’ developing brains.
The newborns with CHD had lower birth weights and lower APGAR scores (a gauge of how well brand-new babies fare outside the womb) at one and five minutes after birth. Before the scan, the infants were fed, wrapped snugly in warm blankets, securely positioned using vacuum pillows, and their ears were protected with ear plugs and ear muffs.
While the infants with CHD had intact global network topology, a close examination of specific brain regions revealed functional disturbances in a subnetwork of nodes in newborns with cardiac disease. The subcortical regions were involved in most of those affected connections. The team also found weaker functional connectivity between right and left thalamus (the region that processes and transmits sensory information) and between the right thalamus and the left supplementary motor area (the section of the cerebral cortex that helps to control movement). The regions with reduced functional connectivity depicted by rs-fcMRI match up with regional brain anomalies described in imaging studies powered by conventional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging.
“Global network organization is preserved, despite CHD, and small world brain networks in newborns show a remarkable ability to withstand brain injury early in life,” Limperopoulos adds. “These intact, efficient small world networks bode well for targeting early therapy and rehabilitative interventions to lower the newborns’ risk of developing long-term neurological deficits that can contribute to problems with executive function, motor function, learning and social behavior.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $1.75 million to a research lab led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., principal investigator and associate professor in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, in order to build models of congenital heart disease (CHD) that are tailored to the unique genetic sequences of individual patients.
Han was the first researcher to create a Drosophila melanogaster model to efficiently study genes involved in CHD, the No.1 birth defect experienced by newborns, based on sequencing data from patients with the heart condition. While surgery can fix more than 90 percent of such heart defects, an ongoing challenge is how to contend with the remaining cases since mutations of a vast array of genes could trigger any individual CHD case.
In a landmark paper published in 2013 in the journal Nature, five different institutions sequenced the genomes of more than 300 patients with CHD and their families, identifying 200 mutated genes of interest.
“Even though mutations of these genes were identified from patients with CHD, these genes cannot be called ‘CHD genes’ since we had no in vivo evidence to demonstrate these genes are involved in heart development,” Han says. “A key question to be answered: How do we efficiently test a large number of candidate disease genes in an experimental model system?”
In early 2017, Han published a paper in Elife providing the answer to that lingering question. By silencing genes in a fly model of human CHD, the research team confirmed which genes play important roles in development. The largest group of genes that were validated in Han’s study were histone-modifying genes. (DNA winds around the histone protein, like thread wrapped around a spool, to become packed into a higher-level structure.)
The new four-year NIH grant will enable Han to carry out the next stage of the detective work to determine precisely how histone-modifying genes regulate heart development. In order to do so, his group will silence the function of histone-modifying genes one by one, to study their function in the fly heart development and to identify the key histone-modifying genes for heart development. And because patients with CHD can have more than one mutated gene, he will silence multiple genes simultaneously to determine how those genes work in partnership to cause heart development to go awry.
By the end of the four-year research project, Han hopes to be able to identify all of the histone-modified genes that play pivotal roles in development of the heart in order to use those genes to tailor make personalized fly models corresponding to individual patient’s genetic makeup.
Parents with mutations linked to CHD are likely to pass heart disease risk to the next generation. One day, those parents could have an opportunity to sequence their genes to learn the degree of CHD risk their offspring face.
“Funding this type of basic research enables us to understand which genes are important for heart development and how. With this knowledge, in the near future we could predict the chances of a baby being born with CHD, and cure it by using gene-editing approaches to prevent passing disease to the next generation,” Han says.
The placenta serves as an essential intermediary between a pregnant mother and her developing fetus, transporting in life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients, ferrying out waste and serving as interim lungs, kidneys and liver as those vital organs develop in utero.
While the placenta plays a vital role in supporting normal pregnancies, it remains largely a black box to science. A research project led by Subechhya Pradhan, Ph.D., and partially funded by a Clinical and Translational Science Institute Research Award aims to shed light on placenta metabolism and characterize possible early biomarkers of impaired placental function in fetal congenital heart disease (CHD), the most common type of birth defect.
“There is a huge information void,” says Pradhan, a research faculty member of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System. “Right now, we do not have very much information about placenta metabolism in vivo. This would be one of the first steps to understand what is actually going on in the placenta at a biochemical level as pregnancies progress.”
The project Pradhan leads will look at the placentas of 30 women in the second and third trimesters of healthy, uncomplicated pregnancies and will compare them with placentas of 30 pregnant women whose fetuses have been diagnosed with CHD. As volunteers for a different study, the women are already undergoing magnetic resonance imaging, which takes detailed images of the placenta’s structure and architecture. The magnetic resonance spectroscopy scans that Pradhan will review show the unique chemical fingerprints of key metabolites: Choline, lipids and lactate.
Choline, a nutrient the body needs to preserve cellular structural integrity, is a marker of cell membrane turnover. Fetuses with CHD have higher concentrations of lactate in the brain, a telltale sign of a shortage of oxygen. Pradhan’s working hypothesis is that there may be differing lipid profiles and lactate levels in the placenta in pregnancies complicated by CHD. The research team will extract those metabolite concentrations from the spectral scans to describe how they evolve in both groups of pregnant women.
“While babies born with CHD can undergo surgery as early as the first few days (or sometimes hours) of life to correct their hearts, unfortunately, we still see a high prevalence of neurodevelopmental impairments in infants with CHD. This suggests that neurological dysfunctional may have its origin in fetal life,” Pradhan says.
Having an earlier idea of which fetuses with CHD are most vulnerable has the potential to pinpoint which pregnancies need more oversight and earlier intervention.
Placenta spectral data traditionally have been difficult to acquire because the pregnant mother moves as does the fetus, she adds. During the three-minute scans, the research team will try to limit excess movement using a technique called respiratory gating, which tells the machine to synchronize image acquisition so it occurs in rhythm with the women’s breathing.
Among all known birth defects, congenital heart disease (CHD) is the leading cause of death in infants. Fortunately, advances in surgical techniques and treatments are improving the outlook for these children, and more and more are reaching adulthood. However, because of this increased longevity, it has become increasingly clear that children born with CHD are at risk of developing life-long neurological deficits. Several risk factors for these neurodevelopmental abnormalities have been identified, but direct links between specific factors and neurological defects have yet to be established.
In a recent review article published in Circulation Research, a team from Children’s National Health System summarized what is currently known about how CHD affects brain maturation. Drawing from studies conducted at Children’s National as well as other research institutions, Paul D. Morton, Ph.D., Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., and Richard A. Jonas, M.D., write that clinical findings in patients, improvements in imaging analysis, advances in neuromonitoring techniques and the development of animal models have greatly contributed to our understanding of the neurodevelopmental changes that occur with CHD.
Findings from Children’s National include:
The authors conclude that although there is ample clinical evidence of neurological damage associated with CHD, there is limited knowledge of the cellular events associated with these abnormalities. They offer perspectives about what can be done to improve our understanding of neurological deficits in CHD, and emphasize that ultimately, a multidisciplinary approach combining multiple fields and myriad technology will be essential to improve or prevent adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes in individuals with CHD.
Questions for future research
Q: What are the cellular events associated with each factor involved in neurodevelopmental delays?
Source: Norton, P.D., Ishibashi, N., Jonas, R.A. “Neurodevelopmental Abnormalities and Congenital Heart Disease: Insights Into Altered Brain Maturation,” Circulation Research (2017) 120:960-977.