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Bella when she was sick

Preserving brain function by purposely inducing strokes

Bella when she was sick

Born to young parents, no prenatal testing had suggested any problems with Bella’s brain. But just a few hours after birth, Bella suffered her first seizure – one of many that would follow in the ensuing days. After brain imaging, her doctors in Iowa diagnosed her with hemimegalencephaly.

Strokes are neurologically devastating events, cutting off life-sustaining oxygen to regions of the brain. If these brain tissues are deprived of oxygen long enough, they die, leading to critical loss of function – and sometimes loss of life.

“As physicians, we’re taught to prevent or treat stroke. We’re never taught to inflict it,” says Taeun Chang, M.D., director of the Neonatal Neurology and Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program at Children’s National Hospital.

That’s why a treatment developed at Children’s National for a rare brain condition called hemimegalencephaly is so surprising, Dr. Chang explains. By inflicting controlled, targeted strokes, Children’s National physician-researchers have treated five newborns born with intractable seizures due to hemimegalencephaly before they’re eligible for epilepsy surgery, the standard of care. In the four surviving infants, the procedures drastically reduced or completely relieved the infants of hemimegalencephaly’s characteristic, uncontrollable seizures.

The most recent patient to receive this life-changing procedure is Bella, a 13-month-old from Iowa whose treatment at Children’s National began within her second week of life. Born to young parents, no prenatal testing had suggested any problems with Bella’s brain. But just a few hours after birth, Bella suffered her first seizure – one of many that would follow in the ensuing days. After brain imaging, her doctors in Iowa diagnosed her with hemimegalencephaly.

A congenital condition occurring in just a handful of children born worldwide each year, hemimegalencephaly is marked by one brain hemisphere growing strikingly larger and dysplastic than the other, Dr. Chang explains. This abnormal half of the brain is highly vascularized, rippled with blood vessels needed to support the seizing brain. The most conspicuous symptoms of hemimegalencephaly are the numerous seizures that it causes, sometimes several in the course of an hour, which also may prevent the normal half of the brain from developing and learning.

Prior studies suggest early surgery achieves better developmental outcomes with one study reporting as much as a drop of 10-20 IQ points with every month delay in epilepsy surgery.

The standard treatment for unilateral megalencephaly is a dramatic procedure called a hemispherectomy, in which surgeons remove and disconnect the affected half of the brain, allowing the remaining half to take over its neurological duties. However, Dr. Chang says, implementing this procedure in infants younger than 3 months of age is highly dangerous.  Excessive, potentially fatal blood loss is likely in infants younger than 3 months who have a highly vascularized brain in the setting of an immature coagulation system. That leaves their doctors with no choice but to wait until these infants are at least 3 months old, when they are more likely to survive the surgery.

However, five years ago, Dr. Chang and her colleagues came up with a different idea when a newborn continued to have several seizures per hour despite multiple IV seizure medications: Because strokes cause irreversible tissue death, it might be possible to effectively incapacitate the enlarged hemisphere from within by inflicting a stroke on purpose. At the very least, this “functional embolization” might buy time for a traditional hemispherectomy, and slow or halt ongoing brain damage until the infants are able to withstand surgery. Ideally, this procedure may be all some children need, knocking out the offending hemisphere completely so they’d never need a hemispherectomy, which has late complications, such as hydrocephalus.

A pediatrician friend of Bella’s paternal grandparents read a story on Children’s National website about Darcy, another baby who’d received functional embolization a year earlier and was doing well. She contacted Dr. Chang to see if the procedure would be appropriate for Bella.

Within days, Bella and her family headed to Washington, D.C., to prepare for functional embolization herself. Within the first weeks of life, Bella underwent three separate procedures, each three to four hours long. Under real-time fluoroscopic and angiographic guidance, interventional neuroradiologist Monica Pearl, M.D., threaded a micro-catheter up from the baby’s femoral artery through the complex network of blood vessels all the way to her brain. There, in targeted branches of her cerebral arteries, Dr. Pearl strategically placed liquid embolic agent to obstruct blood flow to the abnormal half of Bella’s brain.

Immediately after the first procedure, the team had to contend with the same consequences that come after any stroke: brain swelling that can cause bleeding and herniation, complicated further by the already enlarged hemisphere of Bella’s brain. Using neuroprotective strategies learned from treating hundreds of brain-injured newborns, the neonatal neurocritical care team and the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) minimized the brain swelling and protected the normal half of the brain by tightly controlling the brain temperature, her sugar and electrolyte levels, her blood pressure and coagulation system.

As the brain tissue in the oversized hemisphere died, so did the seizures that had plagued Bella since birth. She has not had a seizure since she left Children’s National more than one year ago. Her adoptive parents report that Bella is hitting many of the typical developmental milestones for her age: She’s getting ready to walk, blowing kisses and saying a few words. Physical, speech and occupational therapy will keep her moving in the right direction, Dr. Chang says.

“We believe that Children’s National is the only place in the world that’s treating newborns in this way to preserve their futures,” Dr. Chang says. “We’re privileged to be able to care for Bella and other kids with this rare condition.”

Bella’s transfer and successful procedures required the support and collective efforts of many within the hospital organization including William D. Gaillard, M.D., and his surgical epilepsy team; interventional neuroradiology with Dr. Monica Pearl; Neurosurgery; Neonatology and the NICU; social work; and even approval from Robin Steinhorn, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Hospital-Based Specialties, and David Wessel, M.D., executive vice president and Chief Medical Officer.

“While obvious credit goes to the medical team who saved Bella’s future and the neonatal intensive care nurses who provided exceptional, intensive, one-on-one care, Bella’s team of supporters extend to all levels within our hospital,” Dr. Chang adds.

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Working miracles to control seizures and preserve brain power in newborns

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In the spring of 2017, a multidisciplinary team applied an innovative approach to help preserve function in the working right hemisphere of a baby who experienced her first seizure hours after birth.

When orderly early fetal brain development is disturbed in one half of the brain, infants can be born with hemimegalencephaly—a rare occurrence—that results in one of the brain’s two hemispheres being oversized, heavy and malformed. This brain malformation arises early in the fetal period of life, is not inherited and is associated with seizures early in life.

Children with hemimegalencephaly can develop horrible seizures within the first hours or days of life. According to published research, every month these infants experience uncontrolled seizures correlates to a steep decline in IQ.

Because these types of seizures do not respond to multiple anti-seizure medications—medicines which may also cause worrisome side effects of their own in neonates—care teams attempt to schedule surgery as soon as feasible to remove or disconnect the hemisphere triggering the damaging seizures. “The ‘bad’ brain does not sustain any function and it interferes with the ‘good’ brain doing what it needs to do,” says William D. Gaillard, M.D., chief of Children’s division of Epilepsy and Neurophysiology and chief of Neurology.

Hemispherectomy is intricate surgery on an organ that is softer than normal and crisscrossed with a tangle of blood vessels that supply the damaged hemisphere with blood. Because of the risks of life-threatening blood loss in very young infants, the dramatic surgery is usually not performed until babies are at least 3 months old and weigh at least 10 pounds.

The challenge: The vulnerable babies who most need relief, infants who have been seizing since early life, are too young for the operation.

Neurosurgeons have clamped the carotid artery that supplies blood to the brain to minimize blood loss when the hemisphere is surgically removed. Dr. Gaillard says knowledge of that approach led the team to think: What if we use embolization—blocking blood supply to targeted locations in the brain—to achieve the same effect?  The plan effectively destroys the malformed brain from within, neutralizing its ability to cause the seizures.

“It was eye-opening for us to think about actually inflicting brain injury as a way of treating something in the brain that was causing seizures. That is really novel in itself: We’re thinking out of the box in applying existing techniques in a different age group. The conventional thinking with newborns is to let them be; their seizures don’t look that bad,” says Taeun Chang, M.D., director of Children’s Neonatal Neurology and Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program.

“We have evidence to suggest this is a safe and effective way of avoiding recurrent seizures and minimizing the need to give these infants potentially toxic medications so early in life. Ultimately, this helps a select group of babies who need the surgery to get to the point of being old enough to have it—all the while, sparing the healthy part of their brain,” Dr. Gaillard adds.

Darcy hemimegalencephaly

Once the embolization ended Darcy’s most severe seizures, the little girl could make eye contact, started smiling, and then graduated from smiling to full laughs. In weekly physical therapy, the infant works on tummy time, head control and ensuring her eyes track.

In the spring of 2017, the multidisciplinary team applied the innovative approach to help preserve function in the working right hemisphere of a baby named Darcy Murphy. Darcy experienced her first seizure hours after she was born, and when she arrived at Children’s National had been in and out of two different emergency rooms in another state for the first few weeks of her life.

The team explained to the Murphy family that Darcy was on multiple medications, but her seizures continued unabated. The options included inducing a coma, sending Darcy home despite ongoing seizures or minimally invasive embolization.

“We would not have even posed this if we were not confident in our ability to do the procedure and deal with potential complications,” Dr. Chang says.

“Oh my gosh, as a parent you know what you’re doing is permanent,” says Rachel Murphy, 29, Darcy’s mom said of the decisions that she and husband Ryan, 33, faced for the youngest of their three children. “What if it’s not the right decision? What if in a week they come out with a new procedure you could have done? We were horrified all the time. The nice part with this procedure is the reward is apparent very quickly, and it just gets better. You don’t have to wait two years to know you made the right decision. You can see half a brain is better than the whole thing for this specific child.”

Once the embolization ended Darcy’s most severe seizures, the little girl could initiate and maintain eye contact with family members, started smiling and then graduated from smiling to full laughs. In weekly physical therapy, the infant works on tummy time, head control and ensuring her eyes track.

Children’s multidisciplinary care team includes experts in newborn intensive care (neonatologists) to aggressively manage seizures in the traditional fashion as they occur and to monitor vital signs; a neonatal neurologist/neurointensivist at the bedside and in the Angio suite monitoring Darcy’s brain activity; a neonatal epileptologist; a surgical epilepsy team; an interventional neuroradiologist; neurosurgeons to perform the delicate functional hemispherectomy to remove any residual brain tissue from the bad hemisphere; and physical therapists working to help Darcy achieve maximum function after surgery.

“We were just like one unit in the sense of being able to provide coherent, comprehensive care. It’s about blood pressure management, breathing, electrolytes, making sure everything is right for going to the operating room,” Dr. Chang explains. “Darcy’s case highlights the ways in which Children’s National is different and offers personalized care that is superior to other centers.”

The team, which recently published a case report of two previous serial embolizations followed by hemispherectomy, plans follow-up papers describing EEG manifestations during an acute stroke in a newborn, advice to the field on best practices for the embolization and using cooling to control the planned brain injury during embolization hemispherectomy.

Revised Nov. 7, 2017

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