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preterm brain scans

Early lipids in micropreemies’ diets can boost brain growth

preterm brain scans

Segmentation of a preterm brain T2-weighted MRI image at 30 gestational weeks [green=cortical grey matter; blue=white matter; grey=deep grey matter; cyan=lateral ventricle; purple=cerebellum; orange=brainstem; red=hippocampus; yellow=cerebrospinal fluid].

Dietary lipids, already an important source of energy for tiny preemies, also provide a much-needed brain boost by significantly increasing global brain volume as well as increasing volume in regions involved in motor activities and memory, according to research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

“Compared with macronutrients like carbohydrates and proteins, lipid intake during the first month of life is associated with increased overall and regional brain volume for micro-preemies,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National and senior author. “Using non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging, we see increased volume in the cerebellum by 2 weeks of age. And at four weeks of life, lipids increase total brain volume and boost regional brain volume in the cerebellum, amygdala-hippocampus and brainstem.”

The cerebellum is involved in virtually all physical movement and enables coordination and balance. The amygdala processes and stores short-term memories. The hippocampus manages emotion and mood. And the brainstem acts like a router, passing messages from the brain to the rest of the body, as well as enabling essential functions like breathing, a steady heart rate and swallowing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. babies is born preterm, or before 37 weeks gestation. Regions of the brain that play vital roles in complex cognitive and motor activities experience exponential growth late in pregnancy, making the developing brains of preterm infants particularly vulnerable to injury and impaired growth.

Children’s research faculty examined the impact of lipid intake in the first month of life on brain volumes for very low birth weight infants, who weighed 1,500 grams or less at birth. These micro-preemies are especially vulnerable to growth failure and neurocognitive impairment after birth.

The team enrolled 68 micro-preemies who were 32 weeks gestational age and younger when they were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit during their first week of life. They measured cumulative macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and calories – consumed by these newborns at 2 and 4 weeks of life. Over years, Limperopoulos’ lab has amassed a large database of babies who were born full-term; this data provides unprecedented insights into normal brain development and will help to advance understanding of brain development in high-risk preterm infants.

“Even after controlling for average weight gain and other health conditions, lipid intake was positively associated with cerebellar and brainstem volumes in very low birthweight preterm infants,” adds Katherine M. Ottolini, the study’s lead author.

According to Limperopoulos, Children’s future research will examine the optimal timing and volume of lipids to boost neurodevelopment for micro-preemies.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Early lipid intake improves brain growth in premature infants.”
    • Saturday, April 27, 2019, 1:15-2:30 p.m. (EST)

Katherine M. Ottolini, lead author; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and co-author; Kushal Kapse, research and development staff engineer and co-author; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain and senior author, all of Children’s National.

Catherine Limperopoulos

Breastfeeding boosts metabolites important for brain growth

Catherine Limperopoulos

“Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites that may play a critical role for growth and explain what makes breastfeeding beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.

Micro-preemies who primarily consume breast milk have significantly higher levels of metabolites important for brain growth and development, according to sophisticated imaging conducted by an interdisciplinary research team at Children’s National.

“Our previous research established that vulnerable preterm infants who are fed breast milk early in life have improved brain growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It was unclear what makes breastfeeding so beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites essential for growth and answer that lingering question.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. infants is born preterm. The Children’s research team presented their findings during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

The research-clinicians enrolled babies who were very low birthweight (less than 1,500 grams) and 32 weeks gestational age or younger at birth when they were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit in the first week of life. The team gathered data from the right frontal white matter and the cerebellum – a brain region that enables people to maintain balance and proper muscle coordination and that supports high-order cognitive functions.

Each chemical has its own a unique spectral fingerprint. The team generated light signatures for key metabolites and calculated the quantity of each metabolite. Of note:

  • Cerebral white matter spectra showed significantly greater levels of inositol (a molecule similar to glucose) for babies fed breast milk, compared with babies fed formula.
  • Cerebellar spectra had significantly greater creatine levels for breastfed babies compared with infants fed formula.
  • And the percentage of days infants were fed breast milk was associated with significantly greater levels of both creatine and choline, a water soluble nutrient.

“Key metabolite levels ramp up during the times babies’ brains experience exponential growth,” says Katherine M. Ottolini, the study’s lead author. “Creatine facilitates recycling of ATP, the cell’s energy currency. Seeing greater quantities of this metabolite denotes more rapid changes and higher cellular maturation. Choline is a marker of cell membrane turnover; when new cells are generated, we see choline levels rise.”

Already, Children’s National leverages an array of imaging options that describe normal brain growth, which makes it easier to spot when fetal or neonatal brain development goes awry, enabling earlier intervention and more effective treatment. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy may serve as an important additional tool to advance our understanding of how breastfeeding boosts neurodevelopment for preterm infants,” Limperopoulos adds.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Improved cerebral and cerebellar metabolism in breast milk-fed VLBW infants.”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 3:30–3:45 p.m. (EST)

Katherine M. Ottolini, lead author; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and co-author; Kushal Kapse, research and development staff engineer and co-author; Sudeepta Basu, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain and senior author, all of Children’s National.

Nickie Andescavage

To understand the preterm brain, start with the fetal brain

Nickie Andescavage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preemie Baby

Getting micro-preemie growth trends on track

Preemie Baby

According to Children’s research presented during the Institute for Healthcare Improvement 2018 Scientific Symposium, standardizing feeding practices – including the timing for fortifying breast milk and formula with essential elements like zinc and protein – improves growth trends for the tiniest preterm infants.

About 1 in 10 infants is born before 37 weeks gestation. These premature babies have a variety of increased health risks, including deadly infections and poor lung function.

Emerging research suggests that getting their length and weight back on track could help. According to Children’s research presented during the Institute for Healthcare Improvement 2018 Scientific Symposium, standardizing feeding practices – including the timing for fortifying breast milk and formula with essential elements like zinc and protein – improves growth trends for the tiniest preterm infants.

The quality-improvement project at Children’s National Health System targeted very low birth weight infants, who weigh less than 3.3 pounds (1,500 grams) at birth. These fragile infants are born well before their internal organs, lungs, brain or their digestive systems have fully developed and are at high risk for ongoing nutritional challenges, health conditions like necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and overall poor development.

The research team measured progress by tracking the micro-preemies’ mean delta weight Z-score for weight gain, which measures nutritional status.

“In this cohort, mean delta weight Z-scores improved by 43 percent, rising from -1.8 to the goal of -1.0, when we employed an array of interventions. We saw the greatest improvement, 64 percent, among preterm infants who had been born between 26 to 28 weeks gestation,” says Michelande Ridoré, MS, Children’s NICU quality-improvement program lead who presented the group’s preliminary findings. “It’s very encouraging to see improved growth trends just six months after introducing these targeted interventions and to maintain these improvements for 16 months.”

Within Children’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), micro-preemies live in an environment that mimics the womb, with dimmed lighting and warmed incubators covered by blankets to muffle extraneous noise. The multidisciplinary team relied on a number of interventions to improve micro-preemies’ long-term nutritional outcomes, including:

  • Reducing variations in how individual NICU health care providers approach feeding practices
  • Fortifying breast milk (and formula when breast milk was not available), which helps these extra lean newborns add muscle and strengthen bones
  • Early initiation of nutrition that passes through the intestine (enteral feeds)
  • Re-educating all members of the infants’ care teams about the importance of standardized feeding and
  • Providing a decision aid about feeding intolerance.

Dietitians were included in the daily rounds, during which the multidisciplinary team discusses each infant’s care plan at their room, and used traffic light colors to describe how micro-preemies were progressing with their nutritional goals. It’s common for these newborns to lose weight in the first few days of life.

  • Infants in the “green” zone had regained their birth weight by day 14 of life and possible interventions included adjusting how many calories and protein they consumed daily to reflect their new weight.
  • Infants in the “yellow” zone between day 15 to 18 of life remained lighter than what they weighed at birth and were trending toward lower delta Z-scores. In addition to assessing the infant’s risk factors, the team could increase calories consumed per day and add fortification, among other possible interventions.
  • Infants in the “red” zone remained below their birth weight after day 19 of life and recorded depressed delta Z-scores. These infants saw the most intensive interventions, which could include conversations with the neonatologist and R.N. to discuss strategies to reverse the infant’s failure to grow.

Future research will explore how the nutritional interventions impact newborns with NEC, a condition characterized by death of tissue in the intestine. These infants face significant challenges gaining length and weight.

Institute for Healthcare Improvement 2018 Scientific Symposium presentation

  • “Improved growth of very low birthweight infants in the neonatal intensive care unit.”

Caitlin Forsythe, MS, BSN, RNC-NIC, NICU clinical program coordinator, Neonatology, and lead author; Michelande Ridoré, MS, NICU quality-improvement program lead; Victoria Catalano Snelgrove, RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric clinical dietitian; Rebecca Vander Veer, RD, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric clinical dietitian; Erin Fauer, RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric clinical dietitian; Judith Campbell, RNC, IBCLC, NICU lactation consultant; Eresha Bluth, MHA, project administrator; Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., neonatologist; Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, Medical Unit Director, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit; and Mary Revenis, M.D., NICU medical lead on nutrition and senior author; all of Children’s National Health System.

Tory Peitz and Victoria Catalano

Making weight: Ensuring that micro preemies gain pounds and inches

Tory Peitz and Victoria Catalano

Tory Peitz, R.N., (left) and Victoria Catalano, RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, (right) Pediatric Dietitian Specialist in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children’s National Health System, measure the length of a micro preemie who weighed 1.5 pounds at birth.

A quality-improvement project to standardize feeding practices for micro preemies – preterm infants born months before their due date –  helped to boost their weight and nearly quadrupled the frequency of lactation consultations ordered in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), a multidisciplinary team from Children’s National Health System finds.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 infants in 2016 was preterm, born prior to completing 37 gestational weeks of pregnancy. Micro preemies are the tiniest infants in that group, weighing less than 1,500 grams and born well before their brain, lungs and organs like the liver are fully developed.

As staff reviewed charts for very low birth weight preterm infants admitted to Children’s NICU, they found dramatic variation in nutritional practices among clinicians and a mean decline in delta weight Z-scores, a more sensitive way to monitor infants’ weight gain along growth percentiles for their gestational age. A multidisciplinary team that included dietitians, nurses, neonatologists, a lactation consultant and a quality-improvement leader evaluated nutrition practices and determined key drivers for improving nutrition status.

“We tested a variety of strategies, including standardizing feeding practices; maximizing intended delivery of feeds; tracking adequacy of calorie, protein and micronutrient intake; and maximizing use of the mother’s own breast milk,” says Michelande Ridoré, MS, a Children’s NICU quality-improvement lead who will present the group’s findings during the Virginia Neonatal Nutrition Association conference this fall. “We took nothing for granted: We reeducated everyone in the NICU about the importance of the standardized feeding protocol. We shared information about whether infants were attaining growth targets during daily rounds. And we used an infographic to help nursing moms increase the available supply of breastmilk,” Ridoré says.

On top of other challenges, very low birth weight preterm infants are born very lean, with minimal muscle. During the third trimester, pregnant women pass on a host of essential nutrients and proteins to help satisfy the needs of the fetus’ developing muscles, bones and brain. “Because preterm infants miss out on that period in utero, we add fortification to provide preemies with extra protein, phosphorus, calcium and zinc they otherwise would have received from mom in the womb,” says Victoria Catalano, RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, a pediatric clinical dietitian in Children’s NICU and study co-author. Babies’ linear growth is closely related to neurocognitive development, Catalano says. A dedicated R.N.  is assigned to length boards for Children’s highest-risk newborns to ensure consistency in measurements.

Infants who were admitted within the first seven days of life and weighed less than 1,500 grams were included in the study. At the beginning of the quality-improvement project, the infants’ mean delta Z-score for weight was -1.8. By December 2018, that had improved to -1.3. And the number of lactation consultation ordered weekly increased from 1.1 to four.

“We saw marked improvement in micro preemies’ nutritional status as we reduced the degree of variation in nutrition practices,” says Mary Revenis, M.D., NICU medical lead on nutrition and senior author for the research. “Our goal was to increase mean delta Z-scores even more. To that end, we will continue to test other key drivers for improved weight gain, including zinc supplementation, updating infants’ growth trajectories in the electronic medical record and advocating for expanded use of birth mothers’ breast milk,” Dr. Revenis says.

In addition to Ridoré, Catalano and Dr. Revenis, study co-authors include Caitlin Forsythe MS, BSN, RNC-NIC, lead author; Rebecca Vander Veer RD, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric dietitian specialist; Erin Fauer RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric dietitian specialist; Judith Campbell, RN, IBCLC, NICU lactation consultant; Eresha Bluth MHA; Anna Penn M.D., Ph.D., neonatalogist; and Lamia Soghier M.D., Med., NICU medical unit director.

newborn in incubator

How EPO saves babies’ brains

newborn in incubator

Researchers have discovered that treating premature infants with erythropoietin can help protect and repair their vulnerable brains.

The drug erythropoietin (EPO) has a long history. First used more than three decades ago to treat anemia, it’s now a mainstay for treating several types of this blood-depleting disorder, including anemia caused by chronic kidney disease, myelodysplasia and cancer chemotherapy.

More recently, researchers discovered a new use for this old drug: Treating premature infants to protect and repair their vulnerable brains. However, how EPO accomplishes this feat has remained unknown. New genetic analyses presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2018 annual meeting that was conducted by a multi-institutional team that includes researchers from Children’s National show that this drug may work its neuroprotective magic by modifying genes essential for regulating growth and development of nervous tissue as well as genes that respond to inflammation and hypoxia.

“During the last trimester of pregnancy, the fetal brain undergoes tremendous growth. When infants are born weeks before their due dates, these newborns’ developing brains are vulnerable to many potential insults as they are supported in the neonatal intensive care unit during this critical time,” says An Massaro, M.D., an attending neonatologist at Children’s National Health System and lead author of the research. “EPO, a cytokine that protects and repairs neurons, is a very promising therapeutic approach to support the developing brains of extremely low gestational age neonates.”

The research team investigated whether micro-preemies treated with EPO had distinct DNA methylation profiles and related changes in expression of genes that regulate how the body responds to such environmental stressors as inflammation, hypoxia and oxidative stress.  They also investigated changes in genes involved in glial differentiation and myelination, production of an insulating layer essential for a properly functioning nervous system. The genetic analyses are an offshoot of a large, randomized clinical trial of EPO to treat preterm infants born between 24 and 27 gestational weeks.

The DNA of 18 newborns enrolled in the clinical trial was isolated from specimens drawn within 24 hours of birth and at day 14 of life. Eleven newborns were treated with EPO; a seven-infant control group received placebo.

DNA methylation and whole transcriptome analyses identified 240 candidate differentially methylated regions and more than 50 associated genes that were expressed differentially in infants treated with EPO compared with the control group. Gene ontology testing further narrowed the list to five candidate genes that are essential for normal neurodevelopment and for repairing brain injury:

“These findings suggest that EPO’s neuroprotective effect may be mediated by epigenetic regulation of genes involved in the development of the nervous system and that play pivotal roles in how the body responds to inflammation and hypoxia,” Dr. Massaro says.

In addition to Dr. Massaro, study co-authors include Theo K. Bammler, James W. MacDonald, biostatistician, Bryan Comstock, senior research scientist, and Sandra “Sunny” Juul, M.D., Ph.D., study principal investigator, all of University of Washington.