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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.

Sadiqa Kendi

Sadiqa Kendi, M.D., FAAP, CPST, is 2019 Bloomberg Fellow

Sadiqa Kendi

Sadiqa Kendi, M.D., FAAP, CPST, a pediatric emergency physician at Children’s National and medical director of Safe Kids DC, is among the 2019 cohort of Bloomberg Fellows, an initiative that provides world-class training to public health professionals tackling some of the most intractable challenges facing the U.S.

The Bloomberg American Health Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on June 6, 2019, announced fellows who will receive full scholarships to earn an MPH or DrPH as they tackle five U.S. health challenges: addiction and overdose, environmental challenges, obesity and the food system, risks to adolescent health and violence. Now in its third year, the largest group of fellows to date includes representatives from organizations headquartered in 24 states and the District of Columbia.

As part of her environmental challenges fellowship, Dr. Kendi will attempt to lessen the significant morbidity and mortality suffered by children, especially children of color, due to unintentional injuries. Children’s emergency department handles more than 100,000 pediatric visits per year, 1,200 of which result in hospital admission.

“The numbers are staggering: 25% of emergency department visits by kids and more than $28 billion in health care spending are associated with injuries. These preventable injuries claim the highest number of pediatric lives, and children of color and lower income families often disproportionately bear this burden,” Dr. Kendi says.

Bloomberg Fellows Graphic

“Regrettably, I have seen the personal toll close up, and it has been sobering to hug a sobbing parent whose child clings to life after being struck by a car; to clasp the hand of a frightened child who has fallen from playground equipment and suffered a severe fracture; to see the angst written on a caregiver’s face as I lead our team in trying to save a life that easily could have been safeguarded by installing a window guard,” she adds.

Under the auspices of Safe Kids District of Columbia, Dr. Kendi is developing a one-stop Safety Center at Children’s National to provide injury prevention equipment and education to families in five focus areas: child passenger safety, home, pedestrian, sleep and sports.

Safe Kids Worldwide, the umbrella non-profit organization for Safe Kids DC, started at Children’s National and has grown to more than 400 coalitions around the world. Safe Kids DC is the local coalition that is working to address the burden of injury in local District of Columbia communities.

“I’m grateful to be named a Bloomberg Fellow because this opportunity will enable me to better understand the theories, methods of evaluation and tools for addressing the burden of injury in the District of Columbia, including how to assess and address the built environment. This training will help me to better lead my Safe Kids DC team in developing projects, outreach programs and legislative advocacy that have the potential to directly impact the communities we serve,” she adds.

An-Massaro

Looking for ‘help’ signals in the blood of newborns with HIE

An Massaro

“This data support our hypothesis that a panel of biomarkers – not a one-time test for a single biomarker – is needed to adequately determine the risk and timing of brain injury for babies with HIE,” says An N. Massaro, M.D.

Measuring a number of biomarkers over time that are produced as the body responds to inflammation and injury may help to pinpoint newborns who are more vulnerable to suffering lasting brain injury due to disrupted oxygen delivery and blood flow, according to research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) happens when blood and oxygen flow are disrupted around the time of birth and is a serious birth complication for full-term infants. To lessen the chance of these newborns suffering permanent brain injury, affected infants undergo therapeutic cooling, which temporarily lowers their body temperatures.

“Several candidate blood biomarkers have been investigated in HIE but we still don’t have one in clinical use.  We need to understand how these markers change over time before we can use them to direct care in patients,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., co-director of the Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “The newborns’ bodies sent out different ‘help’ signals that we detected in their bloodstream, and the markers had strikingly different time courses. A panel of plasma biomarkers has the potential to help us identify infants most in need of additional interventions, and to help us understand the most optimal timing for those interventions.”

Past research has keyed in on inflammatory cytokines and Tau protein as potential biomarkers of brain injury for infants with HIE who are undergoing therapeutic cooling. The research team led by Children’s faculty wanted to gauge which time periods to measure such biomarkers circulating in newborns’ bloodstreams. They enrolled 85 infants with moderate or severe HIE and tapped unused blood specimens that had been collected as cooling began, as well as 12, 24, 72 and 96 hours later. The infants’ mean gestational age was 38.7 weeks, their mean birth weight was about 7 pounds (3.2 kilograms), and 19% had severe brain disease (encephalopathy).

Cytokines – chemicals like Interleukin (IL) 6, 8 and 10 that regulate how the body responds to infection, inflammation and trauma – peaked in the first 24 hours of cooling for most of the newborns. However, the highest measure of Tau protein for the majority of newborns was during or after the baby’s temperature was restored to normal.

“After adjusting for clinical severity of encephalopathy and five-minute Apgar scores, IL-6, IL-8 and IL-10 predicted adverse outcomes, like severe brain injury or death, as therapeutic hypothermia began. By contrast, Tau protein measurements predicted adverse outcomes during and after the infants were rewarmed,” Dr. Massaro says.

IL-6 and IL-8 proteins are pro-inflammatory cytokines while IL-10 is considered anti-inflammatory.  These chemicals are released as a part of the immune response to brain injury. Tau proteins are abundant in nerve cells and stabilize microtubules.

“This data support our hypothesis that a panel of biomarkers – not a one-time test for a single biomarker – is needed to adequately determine the risk and timing of brain injury for babies with HIE,” she adds.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Serial plasma biomarkers of brain injury in infants with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) treated with therapeutic hypothermia (TH).”
    • Saturday, April 27, 2019, 6 p.m. (EST)

Meaghan McGowan, lead author; Alexandra C. O’Kane, co-author; Gilbert Vezina, M.D.,  director, Neuroradiology Program and co-author; Tae Chang, M.D., director, Neonatal Neurology Program and co-author; and An N. Massaro, M.D., co-director of the Neonatal Neurocritical Care Program and senior author; all of Children’s National; and co-author Allen Everett, of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.