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boy with a chromosomal developmental disability.

NIH award will support intellectual and developmental disabilities research at Children’s National

boy with a chromosomal developmental disability.

Children’s National Hospital announces a $7 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to support the DC Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (DC-IDDRC).

Children’s National Hospital announces a $7 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to support the DC Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (DC-IDDRC). Through this award, the DC-IDDRC will enhance the recruitment and training of investigators, generate innovation and promote transdisciplinary research to facilitate the development, implementation and dissemination of new diagnostic and therapeutic advances for the care of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The DC-IDDRC, led by Children’s National in partnership with George Washington University, Howard University and Georgetown University, is one of only 14 IDDRCs in the United States funded by NICHD. This long standing NICHD program supports researchers whose goals are to advance understanding of a variety of conditions and topics related to intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Children’s National cares for one of the largest cohorts of children with developmental disabilities in the U.S. — which uniquely positions us to lead the way in both care and research of developmental disabilities in young children,” said Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., interim chief academic officer and interim director of the Children’s National Research Institute, and principal investigator for the DC-IDDRC.

The research strategy for this period will address three key areas: neural development and neurodevelopmental disorders, fetal and neonatal brain injury and genetic disorders by leveraging the core facilities and core innovation — including the Genomics and Bioinformatics Core, Cell and Tissue Microscopy Core, Neuroimaging Core, Clinical Translational Core and Neurobehavioral Evaluation Core.

“In spite of tremendous advances in our understanding of how abnormalities in brain development cause neurodevelopmental disorders and developmental disabilities, integrated knowledge in all these areas of research is still lacking. In particular, it is still unknown how specific genetic defects and cellular abnormalities result in behavioral phenotypes,” said Gallo.

One in six children suffers from a chronic, complex neurodevelopmental disability — conditions such as intellectual disability, learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. For 20 years, the DC-IDDRC has been a home for researchers from different specialties and different institutions to discover new therapies and treatments for children with these types of neurodevelopmental disabilities.

“The DC-IDDRC promises to be a great vehicle to spawn new research and collaborative networks for D.C. area investigators,” said Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., vice provost for faculty and professor at Georgetown University. “We will be examining whether a behavioral intervention to enhance self-regulation in adolescents with Autism changes how they learn and use computational modeling to understand learning strategy and identify associated changes in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging.”

The robust relationships and spirit of cooperation built over two decades of collaboration have laid a strong groundwork for the establishment of the expansive post-doctoral training program and continuous growth of the research programs within the DC-IDDRC. Gallo continues his efforts in expanding access to these programs and building a sustainable pipeline of young scholars from diverse backgrounds. The partnership between Children’s National and Howard University continues to play a crucial role in these goals.

The DC-IDDRC continues to work toward translating research findings into novel approaches and personalized treatments for people with developmental disabilities and their caregivers. This work will be amplified when the DC-IDDRC moves into the expanded facility at the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, which houses startup incubator programs and other support for device innovation.

fetus in utero

Loss of placental hormone linked to brain and social behavior changes

fetus in uteroPreterm birth has been shown to increase the risk of autism spectrum disorders and other developmental problems, particularly in males. The more premature a baby is, the greater the risk of either motor or cognitive deficits. What does the preterm baby lose that is so critical to long-term outcomes?

A new pre-clinical study suggests that one factor may be the loss of a placental hormone that the developing brain would normally see in the second half of pregnancy.

The study is the first to provide direct evidence that loss of a placental hormone alters long-term brain development.

In the study, researchers in the laboratory of Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., now at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and previously at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., found that reducing amounts of a single hormone, called allopregnanolone (ALLO), in the placenta caused brain and behavior changes in male offspring that resemble changes seen in some people with autism spectrum disorder.

The study also found that both brain structure and behavioral changes in the subjects could be prevented with a single injection of ALLO in late pregnancy.

“Our study provides new and intriguing insights into how the loss of placental hormones—which happens in preterm birth or if the placenta stops working well during pregnancy—can lead to long-term structural changes in the brain that increase the risk for autism or other neuropsychiatric disorders,” says lead author Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., assistant professor of neonatal sciences in the Department of Pediatrics at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “What’s encouraging is that these disorders may be preventable if diagnosed and treated early.”

The study was published online August 16 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The placenta is an organ that provides the fetus with oxygen and nutrients and removes waste products. It also produces hormones, including high levels of ALLO in late pregnancy that may influence brain development. Penn, now the L. Stanley James Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and chief of neonatology at Columbia and New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, coined the term “neuroplacentology” to describe this new field of research connecting placental function to brain development.

About one in 10 infants is born prematurely (and is thus deprived of normal levels of ALLO and other hormones), and many more pregnancies have poor placental function.

For this study, the researchers created a pre-clinical model in which they were able to selectively decrease the production of ALLO during pregnancy so that some developing pups were exposed to sufficient placental ALLO while others were not. Although male and female fetuses were both subjected to ALLO deficiency, only male subjects showed autism-like behaviors after birth. Working with collaborators in Washington, D.C., France, and Canada, the Penn laboratory analyzed brain development and long-term behavioral outcomes in the offspring.

ALLO reduction led to cerebellum changes, autism-like behaviors

The male subjects that lacked placental ALLO had structural changes in the cerebellum, a brain region that coordinates movement and has been linked to autism, while their littermates did not.

“In particular, we observed thickening of the myelin sheaths, the lipid coating that protects nerve fibers and speeds up neural signaling,” Vacher says. The same type of thickening is also known to occur transiently in the cerebellum of some boys with autism.

The degree of myelin thickening in juvenile male subjects correlated with abnormal behavior, the researchers also found. The more the sheath was thickened (as measured by myelin protein levels), the more the male subjects exhibited autism-like behaviors, such as decreased sociability and repetitive activities.

“Our experimental model demonstrates that losing placental ALLO alters cerebellar development, including white matter development. Cerebellar white matter development occurs primarily after birth, so connecting a change in placental function during pregnancy with lingering impacts on later brain development is a particularly striking result,” says Penn.

“The findings provide a new way to understand poor placental function. Subtle but important changes during pregnancy or after delivery may set in motion neurodevelopmental disorders that children experience later in life.”

Similarities with human tissue

To determine if similar changes occur in infants, the researchers also examined post-mortem cerebellar tissues from preterm and full-term infants who had died soon after birth. Analysis of these human tissues showed similar changes in brain proteins when cerebellum from male babies born preterm were compared to male full-term babies.

“This study is an important first step in understanding how placental hormones may contribute to specific human neurobehavioral outcomes. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with Dr. Penn and her team to help define how cerebellar neurons and glia respond to environmental factors, including placental function, that can compromise the developing brain,” says study co-author Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., interim chief academic officer at Children’s National Hospital and interim director of the Children’s National Research Institute.

Hormone injection reduced autism symptoms

ALLO’s therapeutic potential was then tested in the preclinical model.

Male offspring of the pre-clinical model given a single injection of ALLO in late pregnancy had fewer autism-like behaviors, the researchers found. Similar results were seen after an injection of muscimol, a drug that enhances the function of GABA receptors—the same receptors that respond to ALLO. Myelin protein levels in the developing cerebellum also normalized with the treatment.

“Identifying when key hormone levels are abnormal, and figuring out how and when to adjust these levels, provides an opportunity to intervene,” Penn says. “Performing additional studies with our pre-clinical model, and measuring hormone levels in moms and babies, may lead to earlier treatment to reduce or prevent long-term cognitive and behavioral impairments in high-risk fetuses and newborns.”

A version of this story appeared on the Columbia University newsroom.

The study is titled “Placental endocrine function shapes cerebellar development and social behavior.” The other contributors: Helene Lacaille (Columbia), Jiaqi J. O’Reilly (Columbia), Jacquelyn Salzbank (Columbia), Dana Bakalar (National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD), Sonia Sebaoui (Children’s National Hospital, Washington, DC), Philippe Liere (University Paris Saclay, Le Kremlin‐Bicêtre Cedex, France), Cheryl Clarkson-Paredes (George Washington University, Washington, DC), Toru Sasaki (Children’s National Hospital), Aaron Sathyanesan (Children’s National Hospital), Panagiotis Kratimenos (Children’s National Hospital), Jacob Ellegood (Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, ON), Jason Lerch (Hospital for Sick Children and University of Oxford, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, UK), Yuka Imamura (Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, PA), Anastas Popratiloff (George Washington University), Kazue Hashimoto-Torii (Children’s National Hospital and George Washington University), and Michael Schumacher (University Paris Saclay).

Purkinje cell

Premature birth disrupts Purkinje cell function, resulting in locomotor learning deficits

Purkinje cell

Children’s National Hospital researchers explored how preterm birth disrupts Purkinje cell function, resulting in locomotor learning deficits.

As the care of preterm babies continues to improve, neonatologists face new challenges to ensure babies are protected from injury during critical development of the cerebellum during birth and immediately after birth. How does this early injury affect locomotor function, and to what extent are clinicians able to protect the brain of preterm babies?

A new peer-reviewed study by Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ph.D., and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), explores exactly what neural circuitry of the cerebellum is affected due to complications that occur around the time of birth causing these learning deficits, and finds a specific type of neurons — Purkinje cells — to play a central role.

Up until now, there has been a sparsity of techniques available to measure neuronal activity during locomotor learning tasks that engage the cerebellum. To surmount this challenge, Children’s National used a multidisciplinary approach, bringing together a team of neuroscientists with neonatologists who leveraged their joint expertise to devise a novel and unique way to measure real-time Purkinje cell activity in a pre-clinical model with clinical relevance to humans.

Researchers measured neural circuit function by pairing GCaMP6f fiber photometry, used to measure neuronal activity in the brain of a free moving subject, with an ErasmusLadder, in which it needs to travel from point A to point B on a horizontal ladder with touch-sensitive rungs that register the type and length of steps. By introducing a sudden obstacle to movement, researchers observed how the subject coped and learned accordingly to avoid this obstacle. By playing a high-pitch tone just before the obstacle was introduced, researchers were able to measure how quickly the subjects were able to anticipate the obstacle and adjust their steps accordingly. Subjects with neonatal brain injury and normal models were run through a series of learning trials while simultaneously monitoring brain activity. In this way, the team was able to quantify cerebellum-dependent locomotor learning and adaptive behavior, unlocking a functional and mechanistic understanding of behavioral pathology that was previously unseen in this field.

In addition to showing that normal Purkinje cells are highly active during movement on the ErasmusLadder, the team explored the question of whether Purkinje cells of injured pre-clinical models were generally non-responsive to any kind of stimuli. They found that while Purkinje cells in injured subjects responded to puffs of air, which generally cue the subject to start moving on the ErasmusLadder, dysfunction in these cells was specific to the period of adaptive learning. Lastly, through chemogenetic inhibition, which specifically silences neonatal Purkinje cell activity, the team was able to mimic the effects of perinatal cerebellar injury, further solidifying the role of these cells in learning deficits.

The study results have implications for clinical practice. As the care of premature babies continues to improve, neonatologists face new challenges to ensure that babies not only survive but thrive. They need to find ways to prevent against the lifelong impacts that preterm birth would otherwise have on the cerebellum and developing brain.

Read the full press release here.

Read the full journal article here.

structure of EGFR

Study suggests EGFR inhibition reverses alterations induced by hypoxia

structure of EGFR

The study suggests that specific molecular responses modulated by EGFR (seen here) may be targeted as a therapeutic strategy for HX injury in the neonatal brain.

Hypoxic (HX) encephalopathy is a major cause of death and neurodevelopmental disability in newborns. While it is known that decreased oxygen and energy failure in the brain lead to neuronal cell death, the cellular and molecular mechanisms of HX-induced neuronal and glial cell damage are still largely undefined.

Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., and colleagues from the Center for Neuroscience Research at the Children’s National Research Institute, discovered increased expression of activated-epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) in affected cortical areas of neonates with HX and decided to further investigate the functional role of EGFR-related signaling pathways in the cellular and molecular changes induced by HX in the cerebral cortex.

The researchers found that HX-induced activation of EGFR and Ca2+/calmodulin kinase IV (CaMKIV) caused cell death and pathological alterations in neurons and glia. EGFR blockade inhibited CaMKIV activation, attenuated neuronal loss, increased oligodendrocyte proliferation and reversed HX-induced astrogliosis.

The researchers also performed, for the first time, high-throughput transcriptomic analysis of the cortex to define molecular responses to HX and to uncover genes specifically involved in EGFR signaling in brain injury. Their results indicate that specific molecular responses modulated by EGFR may be targeted as a therapeutic strategy for HX injury in the neonatal brain.

This study defines many new exciting avenues of scientific exploration to further elucidate the beneficial impact of EGFR blockade on perinatal brain injury at the cellular and molecular levels. This analysis could potentially result in the identification of new therapeutic targets associated with EGFR signaling in the developing mammalian brain that are linked with specific long-term abnormalities caused by perinatal brain injury.

Children’s National researchers who contributed to this study include Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ioannis Koutroulis, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., Susan Knoblach, Ph.D., Payal Banerjee, Surajit Bhattacharya, Ph.D., Maria Almira-Suarez, M.D., and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Read the full article in iScience.

Drs. Dewesh Agrawal, Andrew Dauber, Robert Freishtat, Vittorio Gallo

Four Children’s National Hospital leaders named to APS

Drs. Dewesh Agrawal, Andrew Dauber, Robert Freishtat, Vittorio Gallo

Drs. Dewesh Agrawal, Andrew Dauber, Robert Freishtat and Vittorio Gallo were named as 2021 American Pediatric Society members.

The American Pediatric Society (APS) has announced 55 new members, four of which are experts from Children’s National Hospital. Founded in 1888, the APS is the first and most prestigious academic pediatric organization in North America.

APS members are recognized child health leaders of extraordinary achievement who work together to shape the future of academic pediatrics. New members are nominated by current members through a process that recognizes individuals who have distinguished themselves as child health leaders, teachers, scholars, policymakers and/or clinicians.

“Our members represent the most distinguished and accomplished academic leaders in pediatrics whose outstanding work has advanced child health,” said APS President Steven Abman, M.D. “I am honored to welcome this exceptional group of individuals to the APS. The APS is especially looking forward to the active engagement of our membership with many exciting programs within the organization that are directed towards improvements in academic pediatric medicine, including more vigorous approaches to express our values of anti-racism, equity, diversity and inclusion.”

APS 2021 active new members from Children’s National are:

  • Dewesh Agrawal, M.D., vice-chair for Medical Education at Children’s National. Agrawal’s career has been marked by academic honors and teaching awards at every stage of his training and faculty employment. He has relentlessly devoted his energy to improving the educational experience for students, residents and fellows at Children’s National.
  • Andrew Dauber, M.D., M.M.Sc., chief of Endocrinology at Children’s National. Dr. Dauber’s leadership is reflected, nationally and internationally, in his ability to create research consortia, bringing together investigators to tackle complex questions. For example, he leads an NIH-funded consortium on the genetics of short statures, with multiple top children’s hospitals as partners. He also leads a large clinical trial testing a novel therapeutic agent for genetic short stature.
  • Robert Freishtat, M.D., M.P.H., senior investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine of the Children’s National Research Institute (CNRI). Dr. Freishtat has authored or co-authored more than 100 articles and book chapters in the fields of pediatric lung injury, asthma, obesity, exosomes and emergency medicine. His research has been continuously funded by the NIH since 2003.
  • Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., chief research officer at Children’s National and scientific director of CNRI. Dr. Gallo’s scientific success is attested to by over 130 peer-reviewed publications, many in very high-profile journals, as well as over 30 review articles and book chapters. He has received many national and international awards, including the NINDS Javits award in Neuroscience in 2018. Dr. Gallo has served on the editorial boards of many neuroscience journals, including Glia and the Annual Review in Neuroscience, and has been reviewing editor for the Journal of Neuroscience, all of which is a testament to the tremendous impact that his studies have had on the advancement of neurosciences.

“These new members represent multiple areas of Children’s National and have all leveraged the intersection of science, medicine and clinical education to make advances in their field of study,” said Stephen J. Teach, M.D., M.P.H., chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Children’s National. “Their work has, and will continue to, advance pediatric health care, and I congratulate them on their APS membership.”

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

NIH grant supports research on locomotor dysfunction in Down Syndrome

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has granted the Children’s National Research Institute (CNRI) nearly $500,000 to better understand and identify specific alterations in the circuitry of the cerebellum that results in locomotor dysfunction in down syndrome.

Down syndrome (DS), the most commonly diagnosed chromosomal condition, affects a range of behavioral domains in children including motor and cognitive function. Cerebellar pathology has been consistently observed in DS, and is thought to contribute to dysfunction in locomotor and adaptive motor skills. However, the specific neural pathways underlying locomotor learning that are disrupted in DS remain poorly understood.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has granted the Children’s National Research Institute (CNRI) nearly $500,000 through their NIH-wide initiative INCLUDE – INvestigating Co-occurring conditions across the Lifespan to Understand Down syndrome – to better understand and identify specific alterations in the circuitry of the cerebellum that results in locomotor dysfunction in DS. The INCLUDE initiative aims to support the most promising high risk-high reward basic science.

“There is still a lot unknown about Down syndrome, in particular how fundamental cellular and physiological mechanisms of neural circuit function are altered in this syndrome,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., chief research officer at Children’s National Hospital and scientific director of CNRI. “Grant funding is particularly important to have the resources to develop and apply new cutting-edge methodology to study this neurodevelopmental disorder.”

The main goal of this research is to identify specific alterations in the circuitry of the cerebellum that result in locomotor dysfunction in DS. Defining specific abnormalities in motor behavior, and identifying the brain regions and neurons which are functionally involved will provide the basis for developing potential therapies for treating motor problems in individuals with DS.

“The last decade has brought rapid advances in neurotechnology to address questions at the ‘systems-level’ understanding of brain function,” says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., a Children’s National postdoctoral research fellow. “This technology has rarely been applied to preclinical models of neurodevelopmental disorders, and even more rarely to models of Down syndrome.”

An example is the use of fiber-optics to probe changes in neural circuitry during behavior. Using this technology, researchers can now directly correlate the changes in circuitry to deficits in behavior.

“Along with the other approaches in our proposal, this represents the synthesis of a new experimental paradigm that we hope will push the field forward,” says Dr. Sathyanesan.

In 1960, the average life expectancy of a baby with Down syndrome was around 10 years. Today, that life expectancy has increased to more than 47 years. That significant increase reflects critical advances in medicine, however, kids with DS still live with long-term challenges in motor and cognitive ability.

Children’s National strongly supports translation and innovation, and recently recruited internationally renowned DS researcher, Tarik Haydar, Ph.D., as its new director of the Center for Neuroscience Research.

“We’re building significant strength in this area of research. This grant helps open new avenues of investigation to define which cells and circuits are impacted by this common neurodevelopmental disorder,” says Dr. Gallo. “Our cutting-edge approach will help us answer questions that we could not answer before.”

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

R01 grant funds white matter protection study for congenital heart disease

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., is the principal investigator on a $3.2 million NIH R01 to study white matter growth and repair in utero for fetal brains affected by congenital heart disease.

Many of the neurological deficits seen in children with congenital heart disease (CHD) are related to abnormal white matter development early in life caused by reduced oxygen supply to the brain while in utero. Children with immature white matter at birth also commonly sustain additional white matter injuries following cardiac surgery.

The NIH recently awarded a prestigious R01 grant totaling more than $3.2 million to a collaborative project led by the Center for Neuroscience Research, the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation and the Children’s National Heart Institute at Children’s National Hospital as well as MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

The research, titled “White matter protection in the fetus with congenital heart disease,” looks specifically at whether providing a supplemental amount of the naturally occurring tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) for pregnant women could rescue white matter development of fetuses with congenital heart disease whose brains aren’t receiving enough oxygen – or suffering from hypoxic-ischemic events.

Previous preclinical studies have shown that this lack of oxygen depletes the brain’s natural BH4 level, and the researchers hypothesize that BH4 levels play a critical role in the growth and development of white matter in the fetal brain by triggering key cellular/molecular processes. Specifically, the study will focus on three aims:

  1. Establish in a preclinical model the optimal protective regiment for women pregnant with a fetus who has CHD to receive BH4.
  2. Determine the appropriate approach to deliver BH4 to this population
  3. Leverage genetic tools and biochemical techniques in the laboratory to better understand where and how BH4 levels play a role in the growth (or lack thereof) of oligodendrocytes—the primary cells of white matter.

This laboratory-based work is the first step to determining if the neurodevelopment of babies born with CHD can be preserved or recovered by addressing key brain development that occurs before the baby is even born. Findings related to congenital heart disease may also translate to other populations where white matter development is affected by hypoxia-ischemia, including premature infants.

The project is led by principal investigator Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., with co-investigators Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Joseph Scafidi, D.O., and Mary Donofrio, M.D. as well as colleagues at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Vittorio Gallo and Mark Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute releases annual report

Vittorio Gallo and Marc Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute directors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., and Mark Batshaw, M.D.

The Children’s National Research Institute recently released its 2019-2020 academic annual report, titled 150 Years Stronger Through Discovery and Care to mark the hospital’s 150th birthday. Not only does the annual report give an overview of the institute’s research and education efforts, but it also gives a peek in to how the institute has mobilized to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our inaugural research program in 1947 began with a budget of less than $10,000 for the study of polio — a pressing health problem for Washington’s children at the time and a pandemic that many of us remember from our own childhoods,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., chief research officer at Children’s National Hospital and scientific director at Children’s National Research Institute. “Today, our research portfolio has grown to more than $75 million, and our 314 research faculty and their staff are dedicated to finding answers to many of the health challenges in childhood.”

Highlights from the Children’s National Research Institute annual report

  • In 2018, Children’s National began construction of its new Research & Innovation Campus (CNRIC) on 12 acres of land transferred by the U.S. Army as part of the decommissioning of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus. In 2020, construction on the CNRIC will be complete, and in 2012, the Children’s National Research Institute will begin to transition to the campus.
  • In late 2019, a team of scientists led by Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect samples from 60 individuals that will form the basis of a new reference genome data set. The researchers hope their project will generate better reference genome data for diverse populations, starting with those of Central African descent.
  • A gift of $5.7 million received by the Center for Translational Research’s director, Lisa Guay-Woodford, M.D., will reinforce close collaboration between research and clinical care to improve the care and treatment of children with polycystic kidney disease and other inherited renal disorders.
  • The Center for Neuroscience Research’s integration into the infrastructure of Children’s National Hospital has created a unique set of opportunities for scientists and clinicians to work together on pressing problems in children’s health.
  • Children’s National and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are tackling pediatric research across three main areas of mutual interest: primary immune deficiencies, food allergies and post-Lyme disease syndrome. Their shared goal is to conduct clinical and translational research that improves what we know about those conditions and how we care for children who have them.
  • An immunotherapy trial has allowed a little boy to be a kid again. In the two years since he received cellular immunotherapy, Matthew has shown no signs of a returning tumor — the longest span of time he’s been tumor-free since age 3.
  • In the past 6 years, the 104 device projects that came through the National Capital Consortium for Pediatric Device Innovation accelerator program raised $148,680,256 in follow-on funding.
  • Even though he’s watched more than 500 aspiring physicians pass through the Children’s National pediatric residency program, program director Dewesh Agrawal, M.D., still gets teary at every graduation.

Understanding and treating the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

In a short period of time, Children’s National Research Institute has mobilized its scientists to address COVID-19, focusing on understanding the virus and advancing solutions to ameliorate the impact today and for future generations. Children’s National Research Institute Director Mark Batshaw, M.D., highlighted some of these efforts in the annual report:

  • Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, is looking at whether or not the microbiome of bacteria in the human nasal tract acts as a defensive shield against COVID-19.
  • Catherine Bollard, M.D., MBChB, director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, and her team are seeing if they can “train” T cells to attack the invading coronavirus.
  • Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., an investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Fetal Medicine Institute, is studying the effects of, and possible interventions for, coronavirus on the developing brain.

You can view the entire Children’s National Research Institute academic annual report online.

Vittorio Gallo

Special issue of “Neurochemical Research” honors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Vittorio Gallo

Investigators from around the world penned manuscripts that were assembled in a special issue of “Neurochemical Research” that honors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., for his leadership in the field of neural development and regeneration.

At a pivotal moment early in his career, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., was accepted to work with Professor Giulio Levi at the Institute for Cell Biology in Rome, a position that leveraged courses Gallo had taken in neurobiology and neurochemistry, and allowed him to work in the top research institute in Italy directed by the Nobel laureate, Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini.

For four years as a student and later as Levi’s collaborator, Gallo focused on amino acid neurotransmitters in the brain and mechanisms of glutamate and GABA release from nerve terminals. Those early years cemented a research focus on glutamate neurotransmission that would lead to a number of pivotal publications and research collaborations that have spanned decades.

Now, investigators from around the world who have worked most closely with Gallo penned tributes in the form of manuscripts that were assembled in a special issue of “Neurochemical Research” that honors Gallo “for his contributions to our understanding of glutamatergic and GABAergic transmission during brain development and to his leadership in the field of neural development and regeneration,” writes guest editor Arne Schousboe, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Dr. Gallo as a grad student

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D. as a 21-year-old mustachioed graduate student.

“In spite of news headlines about competition in research and many of the negative things we hear about the research world, this shows that research is also able to create a community around us,” says Gallo, chief research officer at Children’s National Hospital and scientific director for the Children’s National Research Institute.

As just one example, he first met Schousboe 44 years ago when Gallo was a 21-year-old mustachioed graduate student.

“Research can really create a sense of community that we carry on from the time we are in training, nurture as we meet our colleagues at periodic conferences, and continue up to the present. Creating community is bi-directional: influencing people and being influenced by people. People were willing to contribute these 17 articles because they value me,” Gallo says. “This is a lot of work for the editor and the people who prepared papers for this special issue.”

In addition to Gallo publishing more than 140 peer-reviewed papers, 30 review articles and book chapters, Schousboe notes a number of Gallo’s accomplishments, including:

  • He helped to develop the cerebellar granule cell cultures as a model system to study how electrical activity and voltage-dependent calcium channels modulate granule neuron development and glutamate release.
  • He developed a biochemical/neuropharmacological assay to monitor the effects of GABA receptor modulators on the activity of GABA chloride channels in living neurons.
  • He and Maria Usowicz used patch-clamp recording and single channel analysis to demonstrate for the first time that astrocytes express glutamate-activated channels that display functional properties similar to neuronal counterparts.
  • He characterized one of the spliced isoforms of the AMPA receptor subunit gene Gria4 and demonstrated that this isoform was highly expressed in the cerebellum.
  • He and his Children’s National colleagues demonstrated that glutamate and GABA regulate oligodendrocyte progenitor cell proliferation and differentiation.
Purkinje cells

Purkinje cells are 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.

Even the image selected to grace the special issue’s cover continues the theme of continuity and leaving behind a legacy. That image of Purkinje cells was created by a young scientist who works in Gallo’s lab, Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D. Gallo began his career working on the cerebellum – a region of the brain important for motor control – and now studies with a team of scientists and clinician-scientists Purkinje cells’ role in locomotor adaptive behavior and how that is disrupted after neonatal brain injury.

“These cells are the main players in cerebellar circuitry,” Gallo says. “It’s a meaningful image because goes back to my roots as a graduate student and is also an image that someone produced in my lab early in his career. It’s very meaningful to me that Aaron agreed to provide this image for the cover of the special issue.”

Dr. Jonas and research collaborator Nobuyuki Ishibashi in the laboratory.

Cardiac surgery chief recognized for studies of surgery’s impacts on neurodevelopment

Dr. Jonas and research collaborator Nobuyuki Ishibashi in the laboratory.

Dr. Jonas and research collaborator Nobuyuki Ishibashi in the laboratory.

Richard Jonas, M.D., is this year’s recipient of the Newburger-Bellinger Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Award in recognition of his lifelong research into understanding the impact of cardiac surgery on the growth and development of the brain. The award was established in 2013 by the Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Outcome Collaborative (CNOC) to honor Jane Newburger and David Bellinger, pioneers in research designed to understand and improve neurodevelopmental outcomes for children with heart disease.

At Children’s National, Dr. Jonas’ laboratory studies of neuroprotection have been conducted in conjunction with Dr. Vittorio Gallo, director of neuroscience research at Children’s National, and Dr. Nobuyuki Ishibashi, director of the cardiac surgery research laboratory. Their NIH-supported studies have investigated the impact of congenital heart disease and cardiopulmonary bypass on the development of the brain, with particular focus on impacts to white matter, in people with congenital heart disease.

Dr. Jonas’s focus on neurodevelopment after cardiac surgery has spanned his entire career in medicine, starting with early studies in the Harvard psychology department where he developed models of ischemic brain injury. He subsequently undertook a series of highly productive pre-clinical cardiopulmonary bypass studies at the National Magnet Laboratory at MIT. These studies suggested that some of the bypass techniques used at the time were suboptimal. The findings helped spur a series of retrospective clinical studies and subsequently several prospective randomized clinical trials at Boston Children’s Hospital examining the neurodevelopmental consequences of various bypass techniques. These studies were conducted by Dr. Jonas and others, in collaboration with Dr. Jane Newburger and Dr. David Bellinger, for whom this award is named.

Dr. Jonas has been the chief of cardiac surgery and co-director of the Children’s National Heart Institute since 2004. He previously spent 20 years on staff at Children’s Hospital Boston including 10 years as department chief and as the William E. Ladd Chair of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

As the recipient of the 2019 award, Dr. Jonas will deliver a keynote address at the 8th Annual Scientific Sessions of the Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Outcome Collaborative in Toronto, Ontario, October 11-13, 2019.

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Focusing on the “little brain” to rescue cognition

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Research faculty at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., with colleagues recently published a review article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that covers the latest research about how abnormal development of the cerebellum leads to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Cerebellum translates as “little brain” in Latin. This piece of anatomy – that appears almost separate from the rest of the brain, tucked under the two cerebral hemispheres – long has been known to play a pivotal role in voluntary motor functions, such as walking or reaching for objects, as well as involuntary ones, such as maintaining posture.

But more recently, says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the Children’s Research Institute, the research arm of Children’s National  in Washington, D.C., researchers have discovered that the cerebellum is also critically important for a variety of non-motor functions, including cognition and emotion.

Sathyanesan, who studies this brain region in the laboratory of Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and scientific director of the Children’s Research Institute, recently published a review article with colleagues in Nature Reviews Neuroscience covering the latest research about how altered development of the cerebellum contributes to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

These disorders, he explains, are marked by problems in the nervous system that arise while it’s maturing, leading to effects on emotion, learning ability, self-control, or memory, or any combination of these. They include diagnoses as diverse as intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Down syndrome.

“One reason why the cerebellum might be critically involved in each of these disorders,” Sathyanesan says, “is because its developmental trajectory takes so long.”

Unlike other brain structures, which have relatively short windows of development spanning weeks or months, the principal cells of the cerebellum – known as Purkinje cells – start to differentiate from stem cell precursors at the beginning of the seventh gestational week, with new cells continuing to appear until babies are nearly one year old.  In contrast, cells in the neocortex, a part of the brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as cognition, sensory perception and language is mostly finished forming while fetuses are still gestating in the womb.

This long window for maturation allows the cerebellum to make connections with other regions throughout the brain, such as extensive connections with the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the cerebrum that plays a key role in perception, attention, awareness, thought, memory, language and consciousness. It also allows ample time for things to go wrong.

“Together,” Sathyanesan says, “these two characteristics are at the root of the cerebellum’s involvement in a host of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

For example, the review article notes, researchers have discovered both structural and functional abnormalities in the cerebellums of patients with ASD. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an imaging technique that measures activity in different parts of the brain, suggests that significant differences exist between connectivity between the cerebellum and cortex in people with ASD compared with neurotypical individuals. Differences in cerebellar connectivity are also evident in resting-state functional connectivity MRI, an imaging technique that measures brain activity in subjects when they are not performing a specific task. Some of these differences appear to involve patterns of overconnectivity to different brain regions, explains Sathyanesan; other differences suggest that the cerebellums of patients with ASD don’t have enough connections to other brain regions.

These findings could clarify research from Children’s National and elsewhere that has shown that babies born prematurely often sustain cerebellar injuries due to multiple hits, including a lack of oxygen supplied by infants’ immature lungs, he adds. Besides having a sibling with ASD, premature birth is the most prevalent risk factor for an ASD diagnosis.

The review also notes that researchers have discovered structural changes in the cerebellums of patients with Down syndrome, who tend to have smaller cerebellar volumes than neurotypical individuals. Experimental models of this trisomy recapitulate this difference, along with abnormal connectivity to the cerebral cortex and other brain regions.

Although the cerebellum is a pivotal contributor toward these conditions, Sathyanesan says, learning more about this brain region helps make it an important target for treating these neurodevelopmental disorders. For example, he says, researchers are investigating whether problems with the cerebellum and abnormal connectivity could be lessened through a non-invasive form of brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation or an invasive one known as deep brain stimulation. Similarly, a variety of existing pharmaceuticals or new ones in development could modify the cerebellum’s biochemistry and, consequently, its function.

“If we can rescue the cerebellum’s normal activity in these disorders, we may be able to alleviate the problems with cognition that pervade them all,” he says.

In addition to Sathyanesan and Senior Author Gallo, Children’s National study co-authors include Joseph Scafidi, D.O., neonatal neurologist; Joy Zhou and Roy V. Sillitoe, Baylor College of Medicine; and Detlef H. Heck, of University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke under grant numbers 5R01NS099461, R01NS089664, R01NS100874, R01NS105138 and R37NS109478; the Hamill Foundation; the Baylor College of Medicine Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54HD083092; the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) Neuroscience Institute; the UTHSC Cornet Award; the National Institute of Mental Health under grant number R01MH112143; and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54 HD090257.

Vittorio Gallo Alpha Omega Alpha Award

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha

Vittorio Gallo Alpha Omega Alpha Award

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National, was inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha (AΩA), a national medical honor society that since 1902 has recognized excellence, leadership and research in the medical profession.

“I think it’s great to receive this recognition. I was very excited and surprised,” Gallo says of being nominated to join the honor society.

“Traditionally AΩA membership is based on professionalism, academic and clinical excellence, research, and community service – all in the name of ‘being worthy to serve the suffering,’ which is what the Greek letters AΩA stand for,” says Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ph.D., an ΑΩΑ member and attending neonatologist at Children’s National who conducts neuroscience research under Gallo’s mentorship. Dr. Kratimenos nominated his mentor for induction.

“Being his mentee, I thought Gallo was an excellent choice for AΩΑ faculty member,” Dr. Kratimenos says. “He is an outstanding scientist, an excellent mentor and his research is focused on improving the quality of life of children with brain injury and developmental disabilities – so he serves the suffering. He also has mentored numerous physicians over the course of his career.”

Gallo’s formal induction occurred in late May 2019, just prior to the medical school graduation at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences (GWSMHS) and was strongly supported by Jeffrey S. Akman, Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of the university’s medical school.

“I’ve been part of Children’s National and in the medical field for almost 18 years. That’s what I’m passionate about: being able to enhance translational research in a clinical environment,” Gallo says. “In a way, this recognition from the medical field is a perfect match for what I do. As Chief Research Officer at Children’s National, I am charged with continuing to expand our research program in one of the top U.S. children’s hospitals. And, as Associate Dean for Child Health Research at GWSMHS, I enhance research collaboration between the two institutions.”

Vittorio Gallo

Neurodevelopmental disorders: Developing medical treatments

Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer, participates in the world’s largest general scientific gathering, leading panelists in a timely conversation about progress made so far with neurodevelopmental disorders and challenges that lie ahead.

The human brain is the body’s operating system. Imagine if rogue code worked its way into its hardware and software, delaying some processes, disrupting others, wreaking general havoc.

Neurodevelopmental disorders are like that errant code. They can occur early in life and impact brain development for the rest of the person’s life. Not only can fundamental brain development go awry, processes that refine the brain also can become abnormal, creating a double neural hit.  Adding to those complications, children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Fragile X syndrome often contend with multiple, overlapping cognitive impairments and learning disabilities.

The multiple layers of complexities for these disorders can make developing effective medical treatments particularly challenging, says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National Health System and recipient of a coveted Senator Jacob Javits Award in the Neurosciences.

During the Feb. 16, 2019, “Neurodevelopmental Disorders: Developing Medical Treatments” symposium, Gallo will guide esteemed panelists in a timely conversation about progress made so far and challenges that lie ahead during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, the world’s largest general scientific gathering.

“This is a very important symposium; we’re going to put all of the open questions on the table,” says Gallo. “We’re going to present a snapshot of where the field is right now: We’ve made incredible advances in developmental neuroscience, neonatology, neurology, diagnostic imaging and other related fields. The essential building blocks are in place. Where are we now in developing therapeutics for these complex disorders?”

For select disorders, many genes have been identified, and each new gene has the potential to become a target for improved therapies. However, for other neurodevelopmental disorders, like ASD, an array of new genes continue to be discovered, leaving an unfinished picture of which genetic networks are of most importance.

Gallo says the assembled experts also plan to explore major research questions that remain unanswered as well as how to learn from past experiences to make future studies more powerful and insightful.

“One topic up for discussion will be new preclinical models that have the potential to help in identifying specific mechanisms that cause these disorders. A combination of genetic, biological, psychosocial and environmental risk factors are being combined in these preclinical models,” Gallo says.

“Our studies of the future need to move beyond describing and observing in order to transform into studies that establish causality between the aberrant developmental processes and these constellations of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

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 prime “very 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.

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

Cortical dysmaturation in congenital heart disease

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

On Jan. 4, 2019, Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., the director of the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory and an investigator with the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System, published a review in Trends in Neurosciences about the mechanisms of cortical dysmaturation, or disturbances in cortical development, that can occur in children born with congenital heart disease (CHD). By understanding the early-life impact and relationship between cardiac abnormalities and cortical neuronal development, Dr. Ishibashi and the study authors hope to influence strategies for neonatal neuroprotection, mitigating the risk for developmental delays among CHD patients.

Dr. Ishibashi answers questions about this review and CHD-neurodevelopmental research:

  1. Tell us more about your research. Why did you choose to study these interactions in this patient population?

My research focuses on studying how CHD and neonatal cardiac surgery affect the rapidly-developing brain. Many children with CHD, particularly the most complex anomalies, suffer from important behavioral anomalies and neurodevelopmental delays after cardiac surgery. As a surgeon scientist, I want to optimize treatment strategy and develop a new standard of care that will reduce neurodevelopmental impairment in our patients.

  1. How does this study fit into your larger body of work? What are a few take-home messages from this paper?

Our team and other laboratories have recently identified a persistent perinatal neurogenesis that targets the frontal cortex – the brain area responsible for higher-order cognitive functions. The main message from this article is that further understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying cortical development and dysmaturation will likely help to identify novel strategies to treat and improve outcomes in our patients suffering from intellectual and behavioral disabilities.

  1. What do you want pediatricians and researchers to know about this study? Why is it important right now?

Although the hospital mortality risk is greatly reduced, children with complex CHD frequently display subsequent neurological disabilities affecting intellectual function, memory, executive function, speech and language, gross and fine motor skills and visuospatial functions. In addition to the impact of the neurological morbidity on the patients themselves, the toll on families and society is immense. Therefore it is crucial to determine the causes of altered brain maturation in CHD.

  1. How do you envision this research influencing future studies and pediatric health outcomes? As a researcher, how will you proceed?

In this article we placed special emphasis on the need for well-designed preclinical studies to define disturbances in cortical neurogenesis due to perinatal brain injury. I believe that further study of the impact of hypoxemia on brain development is of broad relevance — not just for children with congenital heart disease, but for other populations where intellectual and behavioral dysfunctions are a source of chronic morbidity, such as survivors of premature birth.

  1. What discoveries do you envision being at the forefront of this field?

One of the important questions is: During which developmental period, prenatal or postnatal, is the brain most sensitive to developmental and behavioral disabilities associated with hypoxemia? Future experimental models will help us study key effects of congenital cortical development anomalies on brain development in children with CHD.

  1. What impact could this research make? What’s the most striking finding and how do you think it will influence the field?

Although cortical neurogenesis at fetal and adult stages has been widely studied, the development of the human frontal cortex during the perinatal period has only recently received greater attention as a result of new identification of ongoing postnatal neurogenesis in the region responsible for important intellectual and behavioral functions. Children’s National is very excited with the discoveries because it has opened new opportunities that may lead to regeneration and repair of the dysmature cortex. If researchers identify ways to restore endogenous neurogenic abilities after birth, the risk of neurodevelopment disabilities and limitations could be greatly reduced.

  1. Is there anything else you would like to add that we didn’t ask you about? What excites you about this research?

In this article we highlight an urgent need to create a truly translational area of research in CHD-induced brain injury through further exploration and integration of preclinical models. I’m very excited about the highly productive partnerships we developed within the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National, led by an internationally-renowned developmental neuroscientist, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., who is a co-senior author of this article. Because of our collaboration, my team has successfully utilized sophisticated and cutting-edge neuroscience techniques to study brain development in children born with CHD. To determine the causes of altered brain maturation in congenital heart disease and ultimately improve neurological function, we believe that a strong unity between cardiovascular and neuroscience research must be established.

Additional study authors include Camille Leonetti, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow with the Center for Neuroscience Research and Children’s National Heart Institute, and Stephen Back, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health and Science University.

The research was supported by multiple grants and awards from the National Institutes of Health, inclusive of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (RO1HL139712), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (1RO1NS054044, R37NS045737, R37NS109478), the National Institute on Aging (1RO1AG031892-01) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U54HD090257).

Additional support for this review was awarded by the American Heart Association (17GRNT33370058) and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, which is supported through the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development program grant 1U54HD090257.

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.

Research and Education Week awardees embody the diverse power of innovation

cnmc-research-education-week

“Diversity powers innovation” was brought to life at Children’s National April 16 to 20, 2018, during the eighth annual Research and Education Week. Children’s faculty were honored as President’s Award winners and for exhibiting outstanding mentorship, while more than 360 scientific poster presentations were displayed throughout the Main Atrium.

Two clinical researchers received Mentorship Awards for excellence in fostering the development of junior faculty. Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D received the award for Translational Science and Murray M. Pollack, M.D., M.B.A., was recognized in the Clinical Science category as part of Children’s National Health System’s Research and Education Week 2018.

Dr. Kenworthy has devoted her career to improving the lives of people on the autism spectrum and was cited by former mentees as an inspirational and tireless counselor. Her mentorship led to promising new lines of research investigating methods for engaging culturally diverse families in autism studies, as well as the impact of dual language exposure on cognition in autism.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pollack was honored for his enduring focus on motivating early-career professionals to investigate outcomes in pediatric critical care, emergency medicine and neonatology. Dr. Pollack is one of the founders of the Collaborative Pediatric Critical Care Research Network. He developed PRISM 1 and 2, which has revolutionized pediatric intensive care by providing a methodology to predict mortality and outcome using standardly collected clinical data. Mentees credit Dr. Pollack with helping them develop critical thinking skills and encouraging them to address creativity and focus in their research agenda.

In addition to the Mentorship and President’s Awards, 34 other Children’s National faculty, residents, interns and research staff were among the winners of Poster Presentation awards. The event is a celebration of the commitment to improving pediatric health in the form of education, research, scholarship and innovation that occurs every day at Children’s National.

Children’s Research Institute (CRI) served as host for the week’s events to showcase the breadth of research and education programs occurring within the entire health system, along with the rich demographic and cultural origins of the teams that make up Children’s National. The lineup of events included scientific poster presentations, as well as a full slate of guest lectures, educational workshops and panel discussions.

“It’s critical that we provide pathways for young people of all backgrounds to pursue careers in science and medicine,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s chief research officer and CRI’s scientific director. “In an accelerated global research and health care environment, internationalization of innovation requires an understanding of cultural diversity and inclusion of different mindsets and broader spectrums of perspectives and expertise from a wide range of networks,” Gallo adds.

“Here at Children’s National we want our current and future clinician-researchers to reflect the patients we serve, which is why our emphasis this year was on harnessing diversity and inclusion as tools to power innovation,” says Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., physician-in-chief and chief academic officer of Children’s National.

“Research and Education Week 2018 presented a perfect opportunity to celebrate the work of our diverse research, education and care teams, who have come together to find innovative solutions by working with local, national and international partners. This event highlights the ingenuity and inspiration that our researchers contribute to our mission of healing children,” Dr. Batshaw concludes.

Awards for the best posters were distributed according to the following categories:

  • Basic and translational science
  • Quality and performance improvement
  • Clinical research
  • Community-based research and
  • Education, training and program development.

Each winner illustrated promising advances in the development of new therapies, diagnostics and medical devices.

Diversity powers innovation: Denice Cora-Bramble, M.D., MBA
Diversity powers innovation: Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.
Diversity powers innovation: Mark L. Batshaw, M.D.

Vittorio Gallo

Perinatal brain injury headlines American Society for Neurochemistry

Vittorio Gallo

Dr. Gallo’s research could have major implications for overcoming the common behavioral and developmental challenges associated with premature birth.

Children’s National Chief Research Officer Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., recently had the honor of presenting a presidential lecture at the 48th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Neurochemistry (ASN). The lecture focused on his lifelong investigations of the cellular and molecular mechanisms of white matter development and injury, including myelin and glial cells – which are involved in the brain’s response to injury.

Specifically, he outlined the underlying diffuse white matter injury observed in his lab’s pre-clinical model of perinatal hypoxia, and presented new, non-invasive interventions that promote functional recovery and attenuate developmental delay after perinatal injury in the model. Diffuse white matter injuries are the most frequently observed pattern of brain injury in contemporary cohorts of premature infants. Illuminating methods that might stimulate growth and repair of such injuries shows promise for potential noninvasive strategies that might mitigate the long-term behavioral abnormalities and developmental delay associated with premature birth.

Dr. Gallo’s work in developmental neuroscience has been seminal in deepening understanding of cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. During his tenure as center director, he transformed the Center for Neuroscience Research into one of the nation’s premier programs.

ASN gathers nearly 400 delegates from the neurochemistry sector each year, including bench and clinical scientists, principal investigators, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows all actively involved in research from North America and around the world.

Vittorio Gallo

How the environment helps to shape the brain

Vittorio Gallo

“The strength, duration and timing of environmental experience influences plasticity in brain circuitry, which is made up of communication cables called axons that link neurons throughout the brain and are coated by myelin, a fatty substance that helps nerve impulses speed from place to place,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and senior study author.

Researchers have long known that babies of all kinds need to be exposed to rich, complex environments for optimal brain health and potential. Exposure to new sights, sounds and other sensory experiences appears to be critical for strengthening infants’ developing brains and encouraging smoothly running neural networks. Until recently, little was known about the biological mechanisms behind this phenomenon.

In a review article published online Aug. 22, 2017 in Trends in Neurosciences, Children’s National Health System researchers discuss the role of environmental stimuli on the development of myelin—the fatty insulation that surrounds the extensions that connect cells throughout the nervous system and make up a large part of the brain’s white matter. Positive influences, such as exposure to a large vocabulary and novel objects, can boost the growth of myelin. Conversely, negative influences, such as neglect and social isolation, can harm it, potentially altering the course of brain development.

“The strength, duration and timing of environmental experience influences plasticity in brain circuitry, which is made up of communication cables called axons that link neurons throughout the brain and are coated by myelin, a fatty substance that helps nerve impulses speed from place to place,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and senior study author. “As it responds to environmental stimuli, the brain continually shores up myelin’s integrity. Just as important, damaged myelin can leave gaps in the neural network which can lead to cognitive, motor and behavioral deficits.”

According to Gallo and study lead author Thomas A. Forbes, a pool of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs) specialize in making myelin and do so from childhood into adulthood. The resulting oligodendrocyte cells (OLs) form an important working partnership with axons. From approximately 23 to 37 weeks’ gestation, OLs develop in the fetal brain and they continue to be generated after birth until adolescence.

“This dynamic feedback loop between myelin plasticity and neuronal excitability is crucial,” Forbes says. “It helps to strengthen motor and cognitive function and permits children and adults to learn new skills and to record new memories.”

In utero, genetics plays an outsized role in the initial structure of white matter, which is located in the subcortical region of the brain and takes its white color from myelin, the lipid and protein sheath that electrically insulates nerve cells. Defects in the microstructural organization of white matter are associated with many neurodevelopmental disorders. Once infants are born, environmental experiences also can begin to exert a meaningful role.

“The environment can be viewed as a noninvasive therapeutic approach that can be employed to bolster white matter health, either on its own or working in tandem with pharmacologic therapies,” Gallo adds. “The question is how to design the best environment for infants and children to grow and to achieve the highest cognitive function. An enriched environment not only involves the opportunity to move and participate in physical exercise and physical therapy; it is also an environment where there is novelty, new experiences and continuously active learning. It is equally important to minimize social stressors. It’s all about the balance.”

Among the potential interventions to boost brain power, independent of socioeconomic status:

  • Exposing children to new and different objects with an opportunity for physical activity and interaction with a number of playmates. This type of setting challenges the child to continuously adapt to his or her surroundings in a social, physical and experiential manner. In experimental models, enriched environments supported brain health by increasing the volume and length of myelinated fibers, the volume of myelin sheaths and by boosting total brain volume.
  • Exposure to music helps with cognition, hearing and motor skills for those who play an instrument, tapping multiple areas of the brain to work together collaboratively. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) reveals that professional pianists who began playing as children have improved white matter integrity and plasticity, Gallo and Forbes
  • At its heart, active learning requires interacting with and adapting to the environment. Generating new OLs influences learning new motor skills in the very young as well as the very old. And cognitive training and stimulation shapes and preserves white matter integrity in the aging.
  • DTI studies indicate that four weeks of integrative mind-body training alters myelination and improves white matter efficiency with especially pronounced changes in the area of the brain responsible for self-regulation, impulse control and emotion.
  • Voluntary exercise in experimental models is associated with OPCs differentiating into mature OLs. Imaging studies show a positive relationship between physical fitness, white matter health and the brain networks involved in memory.

Conversely, such negative influences as premature birth, poor nutrition, disease, neglect and social isolation can degrade myelin integrity, compromising the person’s ability to carry out basic motor skills and cognitive function. Usually, the pool of OPCs expands as the fetus is about to be born. But brain injury, lack of oxygen and restricted blood supply can delay maturation of certain brain cells and can cause abnormalities in white matter that diminish the brain’s capacity to synthesize myelin. Additional white matter insults can be caused by use of anesthesia and stress, among other variables.

The environmental influence has the potential to be “the Archimedes’ Lever to appropriating WM development among a limited range of only partially efficacious treatment options,” the authors conclude.