Posts

child measuring his stomach

Cognitive function does not predict weight-loss outcome for adolescents

child measuring his stomach

Though young people with intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairment have greater rates of obesity and other comorbidities that impact their health and well-being, primary care providers are often reluctant to discuss or refer these patients for weight-loss surgery due to concerns about their ability to assent to both the surgery and the ongoing diet and lifestyle changes after surgery.

However, a study in Pediatrics authored by psychologists at Children’s National Health System finds that these young people, including those with Down syndrome, have similar weight-loss trajectories to those with typical cognitive function after bariatric surgery. The study is the first to look at post-surgical outcomes for this subgroup of adolescent bariatric surgery patients.

“It’s challenging to ensure that an adolescent who is cognitively impaired understands what it means to undergo a surgical procedure like bariatric surgery, but we do find ways to ensure assent whenever possible, and make sure the patient also has a guardian capable of consent,” says Sarah Hornack, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children’s National and the study’s first author. “A very important determinant of post-surgical success for any young candidate, however, is a support structure to help them with weight-loss surgery requirements. Often, we see that adolescents with lower cognitive function already have a well-established support system in place to assist them with other care needs, that can easily adapt to providing structure and follow through after weight-loss surgery, too.”

The study reviewed outcomes for 63 adolescents ranging in age from 13 to 24 years old with an average body mass index of 51.2, all of whom were part of the bariatric surgery program at Children’s National Health System. The participants were diagnosed with cognitive impairment or intellectual disability via standardized cognitive assessments as part of a preoperative psychological evaluation or through a previous diagnosis. This study adds to the body of research that is helping to create standard criteria for bariatric surgery in adolescents and teenagers.

Children’s National is one of only a few children’s hospitals with accreditation from the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditation and Quality Improvement Program of the American College of Surgeons and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery to offer bariatric surgery for adolescents with severe obesity. The extraordinary diversity of the patient population in Washington, D.C., including high rates of young people with obesity, allows the team to collect more comprehensive information about successful interventions across subgroups, including cognitive impairment or developmental disabilities, than nearly every other center in the United States.

“We’re happy to contribute evidence that can help families and care providers make informed health decisions for young people with intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairments. So many families are hoping to make sure that their children, despite disabilities, can be as healthy as possible in the long term,” says Eleanor Mackey, Ph.D., who is also a clinical psychologist at Children’s National and served as the study’s senior author. “Though the sample size is small, it does give credence to the idea that for many adolescents and teenagers, weight loss surgery may be a really viable option regardless of pre-existing conditions such as intellectual ability or cognitive function.”

Steven Hardy

Steven Hardy, Ph.D., awarded prestigious NIH grant for sickle cell research, career development

Steven Hardy

Steven Hardy, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National, has been awarded a K23 Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in recognition of his progress toward a productive, independent clinical research career. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Mentored Career Development Awards are designed to provide early career investigators with the time and support needed to focus on research and develop new research capabilities that will propel them to lead innovative studies in the future.

Dr. Hardy, who has worked at Children’s National since 2013, specializes in the emotional, behavioral and cognitive aspects of children’s health, with a particular emphasis on evaluating and treating psychological difficulties among children with cancer or sickle cell disease. With the K23 award, he will receive nearly $700,000 over a five-year period, which will provide him with an intensive, supervised, patient-oriented research experience. The grant will support Dr. Hardy’s time to conduct research, allow him to attend additional trainings to enhance research skills, and fund a research project titled “Trajectory of Cognitive Functioning in Youth with Sickle Cell Disease without Cerebral Infarction.”

Many children with sickle cell disease (SCD) also have intellectual challenges which stem from two primary pathways – stroke and other disease-related central nervous system effects. While stroke is a major complication of SCD, the majority of children with SCD have no evidence of stroke but may still exhibit cognitive functioning challenges related to their disease. Such cognitive difficulties have practical implications for the 100,000 individuals in the SCD, as 20-40% of youth with SCD repeat a grade in school and fewer than half of adults with SCD are employed. Dr. Hardy’s project will focus on understanding the scope and trajectory of cognitive difficulties in children with SCD without evidence of stroke, as well as the mechanisms that precipitate disease-related cognitive decline. The study will characterize temporal relationships between biomarkers of SCD severity and changes in cognitive functioning to inform future development of risk stratification algorithms to predict cognitive decline. Armed with the ability to predict cognitive decline, families will have additional information to weigh when making decisions and providers will be better able to intervene and tailor treatment.

In Brief- Fetal Medicine

Cognitive training exercises at home help kids with sickle cell boost visuospatial working memory

A team led by Children’s National Health System clinicians and research scientists attempted to identify novel approaches to boost working memory in children who suffer from sickle cell disease.

A team led by Children’s National Health System clinicians and research scientists attempted to identify novel approaches to boost working memory in children who suffer from sickle cell disease.

Youths with sickle cell disease who used hand-held computers to play game-like exercises that get harder as a user’s skill level rises improved their visuospatial working memory (WM). Children with sickle cell disease, however, completed fewer training sessions during an initial study compared with children with other disease-related WM deficits.

A team led by Children’s National Health System clinicians and research scientists attempted to identify novel approaches to boost WM in children who suffer from sickle cell disease. Kids who have this red blood cell disorder inherit abnormal hemoglobin genes from each parent. Rather than slipping through large and small vessels to ferry oxygen throughout the body, their stiff, sickle-shaped red blood cells stick to vessel walls, impeding blood supply and triggering sudden pain. Children with sickle cell disease have more difficulty completing tasks that place demands on one’s WM, the brain function responsible for temporarily remembering information and manipulating that information to facilitate learning and reasoning. As a result, they’re more likely to repeat a grade, require special academic services, and to have difficulty maintaining employment as adults.

Because computerized cognitive training programs have been used with success to boost WM for children with other health conditions, such as childhood cancer, the research team sought to examine the feasibility of using the technique for kids with sickle cell disease. “This small study highlights the challenges and opportunities of implementing a home-based cognitive training intervention with youths who have sickle cell disease,” says Steven J. Hardy, PhD, a pediatric psychologist in the Divisions of Hematology, Oncology, and Blood and Marrow Transplantation at Children’s National. “While a larger, randomized controlled clinical trial is needed to better characterize efficacy, our initial work indicates that Cogmed is acceptable and moderately feasible in this population.”

Children’s National is home to the Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) Program, one of the nation’s largest, most comprehensive pediatric programs that cares for 1,350 patients younger than 21 annually. Over 15 months, the team recruited youths aged 7 to 16 participating in the program who had an intelligence quotient of at least 70 and an absolute or relative memory deficit. Those who lacked access to a tablet computer were loaned an iPad Mini 2 loaded with Cogmed RM, an interactive audiovisual cognitive training program that consists of exercises that get progressively more challenging. A clinical psychologist provided coaching and moral support through weekly telephone calls to review progress and challenges, and to offer tips on how to optimize the youths’ progress.

Six of 12 eligible participants – all girls – completed by finishing at least 20 sessions of the program. The mean number of sessions completed was 15.83, and the kids spent a median of 725 minutes working actively on Cogmed exercises. “Participants who completed Cogmed indicated that they perceived greater levels of social support from teachers,” Hardy and colleagues write in the study, published by Pediatric Blood & Cancer. “[T]here was not a statistical difference in perceived parent support.”

Among those children who completed Cogmed, standard scores increased an average of 5.05 on a measure of visuospatial short-term memory, 19.72 on a measure of verbal WM, 27.53 on a measure of visuospatial short-term memory, and 23.82 on a measure of visuospatial WM. The researchers also observed a normalizing of memory functioning for those who finished Cogmed, as a significant portion of participants scored below the average range before using Cogmed and most scored in the average range or higher on memory tests after finishing the program.

“In this initial feasibility trial, adherence to Cogmed was lower than expected (50 percent completion) compared to adherence rates of other samples of children with medical histories, including patients with symptomatic epilepsy and youth treated for cancer,” Hardy and co-authors write. “Thus, additional modifications may be needed to achieve consistent delivery of the intervention to youth with SCD.”

Related Resources: Research at a Glance

Feasibility of home-based computerized WM training for sickle cell disease

What’s Known
Cognitive deficits are a common complication affecting about one-third of kids who have the higher risk sickle cell disease genotypes, HbSS and HbSβ0 thalassemia. While such deficits have been well-documented, no treatment has been proven to recover cognitive function for kids with sickle cell disease. Sickle cell disease is a group of red blood cell disorders in which abnormal genes that children inherit from parents cause their bodies to make sickle-shaped hemoglobin S. Kids with sickle cell disease are at heightened risk for neurocognitive deficits, which can have practical implications for their ability to learn and to succeed academically.

What’s New
Because home-based computerized cognitive training programs have helped to improve working memory (WM) for children with epilepsy and for childhood cancer survivors, a team led by Children’s National Health System researchers and clinicians sought to gauge the feasibility of using such an approach for a small number of children with sickle cell disease. The pilot study found that girls were more likely to complete the cognitive training exercises than boys. Additionally, children whose teachers showed a high level of support spent more time working on the exercises, completed more sessions, and were more likely to finish the program. The mean number of completed sessions was 15.83. Participants who reported experiencing fewer functional limitations as a result of sickle cell disease-related pain completed more sessions. Overall, children who completed Cogmed exercises showed improvements in verbal WM, and visuospatial short-term memory and WM.

Questions for Future Research
Q: Because sickle cell disease is often accompanied by sudden attacks of severe pain, would concurrent delivery of pain-management interventions impact children’s ability to complete cognitive training exercises?
Q: Would adding functional magnetic resonance imaging help to clarify the association between adaptive cognitive skills training and changes to physiological processes, such as alterations in prefrontal and parietal cortical activity, and functional connectivity?

Source: S.J. Hardy, K.K. Hardy, J.C. Schatz, A.L. Thompson, and E.R. Meier. Feasibility of Home-Based Computerized Working Memory Training With Children and Adolescents With Sickle Cell Disease.” Published online by Pediatric Blood & Cancer May 26, 2016.