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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.

Nickie Andescavage

To understand the preterm brain, start with the fetal brain

Nickie Andescavage

“My best advice to future clinician-scientists is to stay curious and open-minded; I doubt I could have predicted my current research interest or described the path between the study of early oligodendrocyte maturation to in vivo placental development, but each experience along the way – both academic and clinical – has led me to where I am today,” Nickie Andescavage, M.D., writes.

Too often, medical institutions erect an artificial boundary between caring for the developing fetus inside the womb and caring for the newborn whose critical brain development continues outside the womb.

“To improve neonatal outcomes, we must transform our current clinical paradigms to begin treatment in the intrauterine period and continue care through the perinatal transition through strong collaborations with obstetricians and fetal-medicine specialists,” writes Nickie Andescavage, M.D., an attending in Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine at Children’s National.

Dr. Andescavage’s commentary was published online March 25, 2019, in Pediatrics Research and accompanies recently published Children’s research about differences in placental development in the setting of placental insufficiency. Her commentary is part of a new effort by Nature Publishing Group to spotlight research contributions from early career investigators.

The placenta, an organ shared by a pregnant woman and the developing fetus, plays a critical but underappreciated role in the infant’s overall health. Under the mentorship of Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain, and Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine, Dr. Andescavage works with interdisciplinary research teams at Children’s National to help expand that evidence base. She has contributed to myriad published works, including:

While attending Cornell University as an undergraduate, Dr. Andescavage had an early interest in neuroscience and neurobehavior. As she continued her education by attending medical school at Columbia University, she corroborated an early instinct to work in pediatrics.

It wasn’t until the New Jersey native began pediatric residency at Children’s National that those complementary interests coalesced into a focus on brain autoregulation and autonomic function in full-term and preterm infants and imaging the brains of both groups. In normal, healthy babies the autonomic nervous system regulates heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, breathing and other involuntary activities. When these essential controls go awry, babies can struggle to survive and thrive.

“My best advice to future clinician-scientists is to stay curious and open-minded; I doubt I could have predicted my current research interest or described the path between the study of early oligodendrocyte maturation to in vivo placental development, but each experience along the way – both academic and clinical – has led me to where I am today,” Dr. Andescavage writes in the commentary.

the cerebral blood flow (CBF) maps, corresponding anatomical image aligned to the CBF map, and the regions of interest examined

Tracking preemies’ blood flow to monitor brain maturation

Blood is the conduit through which our cells receive much of what they need to grow and thrive. The nutrients and oxygen that cells require are transported by this liquid messenger. Getting adequate blood flow is especially important during the rapid growth of gestation and early childhood – particularly for the brain, the weight of which roughly triples during the last 13 weeks of a typical pregnancy. Any disruption to blood flow during this time could dramatically affect the development of this critical organ.

Now, a new study by Children’s National Health System researchers finds that blood flow to key regions of very premature infants’ brains is altered, providing an early warning sign of disturbed brain maturation well before such injury is visible on conventional imaging. The prospective, observational study was published online Dec. 4, 2017 by The Journal of Pediatrics.

“During the third trimester of pregnancy, the fetal brain undergoes an unprecedented growth spurt. To power that growth, cerebral blood flow increases and delivers the extra oxygen and nutrients needed to nurture normal brain development,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior author of the study. “In full-term pregnancies, these critical brain structures mature inside the protective womb where the fetus can hear the mother and her heartbeat, which stimulates additional brain maturation. For infants born preterm, however, this essential maturation process happens in settings often stripped of such stimuli.”

The challenge: How to capture what goes right or wrong in the developing brains of these very fragile newborns? The researchers relied on arterial spin labeling (ASL) magnetic resonance (MR) imaging, a noninvasive technique that labels the water portion of blood to map how blood flows through infants’ brains in order to describe which regions do or do not receive adequate blood supply. The imaging work can be done without a contrast agent since water from arterial blood itself illuminates the path traveled by cerebral blood.

“In our study, very preterm infants had greater absolute cortical cerebral blood flow compared with full-term infants. Within regions, however, the insula (a region critical to experiencing emotion), anterior cingulate cortex (a region involved in cognitive processes) and auditory cortex (a region involved in processing sound) for preterm infants received a significantly decreased volume of blood, compared with full-term infants. For preterm infants, parenchymal brain injury and the need for cardiac vasopressor support both were correlated with decreased regional CBF,” Limperopoulos adds.

The team studied 98 preterm infants who were born June 2012 to December 2015, were younger than 32 gestational weeks at birth and who weighed less than 1,500 grams. They matched those preemies by gestational age with 104 infants who had been carried to term. The brain MRIs were performed as the infants slept.

Blood flows where it is needed most with areas of the brain that are used more heavily commandeering more oxygen and nutrients. Thus, during brain development, CBF is a good indicator of functional brain maturation since brain areas that are the most metabolically active need more blood.

the cerebral blood flow (CBF) maps, corresponding anatomical image aligned to the CBF map, and the regions of interest examined

This figure represents the cerebral blood flow (CBF) maps, corresponding anatomical image aligned to the CBF map, and the regions of interest examined. The scale indicates the quantitative value of the CBF map and is expressed in mL/100g/min. The data are from a preterm infant scanned at term age without evidence of brain injury. The insula (see black arrows in panel ‘D’) may be particularly vulnerable to the added stresses of the preterm infant’s life outside the womb.
Credit: M. Bouyssi-Kobar, et al., The Journal of Pediatrics.

“The ongoing maturation of the newborn’s brain can be seen in the distribution pattern of cerebral blood flow, with the greatest volume of blood traveling to the brainstem and deep grey matter,” says Marine Bouyssi-Kobar, M.S., the study’s lead author. “Because of the sharp resolution provided by ASL-MR images, our study finds that in addition to the brainstem and deep grey matter, the insula and the areas of the brain responsible for sensory and motor functions are also among the most oxygenated regions. This underscores the critical importance of these brain regions in early brain development. In preterm infants, the insula may be particularly vulnerable to the added stresses of life outside the womb.”

Of note, compromised regional brain structures in adults are implicated in multiple neurodevelopmental disorders. “Altered development of the insula and anterior cingulate cortex in newborns may represent early warning signs of preterm infants at greater risk for long-term neurodevelopmental impairments,” Limperopoulos says.

Research reported in this post was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, MOP-81116; the SickKids Foundation, XG 06-069; and the National Institutes of Health under award number R01 HL116585-01.