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.