Posts

Sarah Mulkey

MRI and ultrasound imaging detect the spectrum of Zika’s impact

Sarah Mulkey

“A combination of prenatal MRI and US was able to detect Zika-related brain abnormalities during pregnancy, giving families timely information to prepare for the potential complex care needs of these infants,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

Worldwide, thousands of babies have been born to mothers who were infected during pregnancy with Zika, a virus associated with neurological deficits, impaired vision and neurodevelopmental disabilities, among other birth defects. These birth defects are sometimes severe, causing lifelong disability. But they’re also relatively rare compared with the overall rates of infection.

Predicting how many Zika-exposed babies would experience neurological birth defects has been challenging.

However, an international study led by Children’s faculty suggests that ultrasound (US) imaging performed during pregnancy and after childbirth revealed most Zika-related brain abnormalities experienced by infants exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy, according to a prospective cohort study published online Nov. 26, 2018, in JAMA Pediatrics. Some Zika-exposed infants whose imaging had been normal during pregnancy had mild brain abnormalities detected by US and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) after they were born.

“A combination of prenatal MRI and US was able to detect Zika-related brain abnormalities during pregnancy, giving families timely information to prepare for the potential complex care needs of these infants,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Health System and the study’s lead author. “In our study, we detected mild brain abnormalities on postnatal neuroimaging for babies whose imaging was normal during pregnancy. Therefore, it is important for clinicians to continue to monitor brain development for Zika-exposed infants after birth.”

As of Nov. 20 2018, nearly 2,500 pregnant women in the U.S. had laboratory confirmed Zika infection, and about 2,400 of them had given birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While more than 100 U.S. infants were born with Zika-associated birth defects, the vast majority of Zika-exposed U.S. infants were apparently normal at birth. The sequential neuroimaging study Dr. Mulkey leads seeks to determine the spectrum of brain findings in infants exposed to Zika in the womb using both US and MRI before and after birth.

The international research team enrolled 82 women in the study from June 15, 2016, through June 27, 2017. All of the women had been exposed to Zika during pregnancy; all but one experienced clinical symptoms by a mean gestational age of 8.2 weeks. Eighty of those women lived in or near Barranquilla, Colombia, and were exposed to Zika there. Two U.S. study participants were exposed to the primarily mosquito-borne illness during travel to Zika hot zones.

All women received fetal MRIs and US during the second and/or third trimester of pregnancy. After their infants were born, the children received brain MRI and cranial US. Blood samples from both mothers and babies were tested for Zika using polymerase chain reaction and serology.

Fetal MRI was able to discern Zika-related brain damage as early as 18 weeks gestation and picked up significant fetal brain abnormalities not fully appreciated in US imaging. In one case, the US remained normal while fetal MRI alone detected brain abnormalities. Three fetuses (4 percent) had severe fetal brain abnormalities consistent with Zika infection, including:

Seventy-five infants were born at term. One pregnancy was terminated at 23 weeks gestation due to the gravity of the fetal brain abnormalities. One fetus with normal imaging died during pregnancy. One newborn who was born with significant fetal brain abnormalities died at age 3 days.

Cranial US and brain MRI was performed on the majority of infants whose prenatal imaging had been normal.  Seven of 53 (13 percent) Zika-exposed infants had mild brain abnormalities detected by MRI after birth. In contrast, postnatal cranial US was better at detecting changes of lenticulostriate vasculopathy, cysts within the brain’s choroid plexus (cells that produce cerebrospinal fluid), germinolytic/subependymal cysts and/or calcifications, which were seen in 21 of 57 (37 percent) infants.

“Sequential neuroimaging revealed that the majority of Zika-exposed fetuses had normal brain development. Tragically, in a small number of pregnancies, Zika-related brain abnormalities were quite severe,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “Our data support the CDC’s recommendation that cranial US be performed after Zika-exposed babies are born. In addition, there is clearly a need to follow these babies over time to gauge whether the brain anomalies we see in imaging affects language, motor and social skills.”

Companion editorial: Revealing the effects of Zika

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D.Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Margarita Arroyave-Wessel, MPH,  Stephanie Russo, B.S, Youssef A. Kousa, D.O, Ph.D.Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, Senior Author Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, all of Children’s National; Christopher Swisher, BS, Georgetown University and Caitlin Cristante, BS, Loyola University, both of  whose contributions included research performed at Children’s National; Yamil Fourzali, M.D., Armando Morales, M.D., both of Sabbag Radiologos; Liliana Encinales, M.D., Allied Research Society; Nelly Pacheco, Bacteriologa, Bio-Nep; Robert S. Lanciotti, Ph.D., Arbovirus Diseases Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Carlos Cure, M.D., BIOMELAB.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the IKARIA fund.

Chima Oluigbo examines a patient

Eradicating epilepsy with Visualase

Chima Oluigbo examines a patient

Chima Oluigbo, M.D., and his team are using Visualase to identify and eliminate seizure foci and provide patients with a minimally invasive procedure for treating epilepsy.

About one in 26 people will be diagnosed with epilepsy in their lifetime. That adds up to about 3.4 million people in the U.S., or about 1 percent of the population nationwide. This condition can have huge consequences on quality of life, affecting whether children will learn well in school, eventually drive a car, hold down a job or even survive into adulthood.

For most of those that develop epilepsy, medications can keep seizures in check. However, for about a third of patients, this strategy doesn’t work, says Chima Oluigbo, M.D., an attending neurosurgeon at Children’s National Health System. That’s when he and his team offer a surgical fix.

Epilepsy surgery has come a long way, Dr. Oluigbo explains. When he first began practicing in the early 2000s, most surgeries were open, he says – they involved making a long incision in the scalp that can span half a foot or more. After drilling out a window of skull that can be as long as five inches, surgeons had to dig through healthy brain to find the abnormal tissue and remove it.

Each part of this “maximally invasive” procedure can be traumatic on a patient, Dr. Oluigbo says. That leads to significant pain after the procedure, extended hospital stays of at least a week followed by a long recovery. There are also significant risks for neurological complications including stroke, weakness, paralysis, speech problems and more.

However, open surgery isn’t the only option for epilepsy surgery anymore. Several new minimally invasive alternatives are now available to patients and the most promising, Dr. Oluigbo says, is called Visualase. He and his team are the only surgeons in the region who perform this procedure.

In Visualase surgeries, Dr. Oluigbo and his colleagues start by making a tiny incision, about 5 millimeters, on the scalp. Through this opening, they bore an even tinier hole into the skull and thread a needle inside that’s about 1.6 millimeters wide. “The brain barely notices that it’s there,” he says.

The tip of this wire holds a laser. Once this tip is placed directly at the seizure foci – the cluster of nerve cells responsible for generating a seizure – the patient is placed in an intraoperative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device. There, after checking the tip’s precise placement, the surgeons turn the laser on. Heat from the laser eradicates the foci, which the surgeons can see in real time using MRI thermography technology. The margins of the destroyed tissue are well-defined, largely sparing healthy tissue.

After the wire is removed, the incision is closed with a single stitch, and patients go home the next day. The majority of patients are seizure free, with rates as high as 90 percent for some types of epilepsy, Dr. Oluigbo says. Although seizure-free rates are also high for open procedures, he adds, Visualase spares them many of open surgeries’ painful and difficult consequences.

“Having done both open surgeries and Visualase,” Dr. Oluigbo says, “I can tell you the difference is night and day.”

Although open procedures will still be necessary for some patients with particularly large foci that are close to the surface, Dr. Oluigbo says that Visualase is ideal for treating medication-resistant cases in which the foci are buried deep within the brain. A typical example is a condition called hypothalamic hamartoma, in which tumors on the hypothalamus lead to gelastic seizures, an unusual seizure type characterized by uncontrollable laughing. He also uses Visualase for another condition called tuberous sclerosis, in which waxy growths called tubers develop in the brain, and for cancerous and benign brain tumors.

It’s gratifying to be able to help these children become seizure-free for the rest of their lives, says Dr. Oluigbo – even more so with the numerous updates he receives from families telling him how much this procedure has improved their children’s lifestyle.

“Visualase has completely changed the way that we approach these patients,” Dr. Oluigbo says. “It’s extraordinary to see the effects that this one procedure can have on the quality of life for patients here at Children’s National.”

An-Massaro

Keeping an eye on autonomic function for infants with HIE

An-Massaro

“By including heart rate variability measurements and other markers of autonomic function in our current predictive armamentarium,” says An Massaro, M.D., “we may be able to offer new hope for infants with HIE.”

In about two to three in every 1,000 full-term births, babies develop a neurological condition called hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) when their brains receive insufficient oxygen. HIE can be a devastating condition, leading to severe developmental or cognitive delays or motor impairments that become more evident as the child grows older. Despite improvements in care – including therapeutic hypothermia, a whole-body cooling method administered shortly after birth that can slow brain damage – about half of children with this condition die from neurological complications by age 2.

Finding ways to identify children with the most severe HIE could help researchers focus their efforts and provide even more intense neuroprotective care, explains An Massaro, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National Health System. But thus far, it’s been unclear which symptoms reflect the extent of HIE-induced brain damage.

That’s why Dr. Massaro and colleagues embarked on a study published in the May 2018 issue of Journal of Pediatrics. The team sought to determine whether dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – the auto-pilot part of the nervous system responsible for unconscious bodily functions, such as breathing and digestion – reflected in routine care events can be used as a marker for brain injury severity.

The researchers collected data from 25 infants who were treated for HIE with therapeutic hypothermia at Children’s National. Thanks to multi-modal monitoring, these babies’ medical records hold a treasure trove of information, explains Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., a staff scientist in Children’s Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab.

In addition to including continuous heart rate tracings and blood pressure readings that are standard for many infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), they also recorded cerebral near infrared spectroscopy, a monitor that measures brain tissue oxygen levels. The investigators performed detailed analyses to evaluate how these monitor readings change in response to a variety of routine care events, such as diaper changes, heel sticks, endotracheal tube manipulations and pupil examinations.

The researchers stratified these infants based on how dysfunctional their ANS behaved by using heart rate variability as a marker: The fewer natural fluctuations in heart rate, the more damaged their ANS was thought to be. And they also used non-invasive brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine brain damage. They then compared this information with the babies’ physiological responses during each care event.

Their findings show that infants with impaired ANS, based on depressed heart rate variability before the care event, had significantly different responses to these care events compared with babies with intact ANS.

  • For stimulating interventions, such as diaper changes and heel sticks, both heart rate and blood pressure increased in babies with intact ANS but decreased in babies with impaired ones.
  • Shining a light in their pupils led to an expected decreased heart rate with stable blood pressure in ANS-intact infants, but in ANS-impaired infants, there was no responsive change in heart rate and, additionally, a decrease in blood pressure was observed.
  • Responses were similar between the two groups during breathing tube manipulations, except for a slight increase in heart rate a few minutes later in the ANS-impaired group.

These results, Govindan explains, suggest that a real-time, continuous way to assess ANS function may offer insights into the expected physiological response for a given infant during routine NICU care.

“This is exactly the type of additional information that intensivists need to pinpoint infants who may benefit from additional neuroprotective support,” he says. “Right now, it is standard practice to monitor brain activity continuously using electroencephalogram and to check the status of the brain using MRI to assess the response to therapeutic cooling. Neither of these assessments can be readily used by neonatologists at the bedside in real-time to make clinical decisions.”

Assessing ANS function in real-time can help guide neuroprotective care in high-risk newborns by providing insight into the evolving nature of brain damage in these infants, Dr. Massaro adds.

Beyond simply serving as a biomarker into brain injury, poor ANS function also could contribute to the development of secondary injury in newborns with HIE by stymieing the normal changes in heart rate and blood pressure that help oxygenate and heal injured brains. The researchers found that the cumulative duration of autonomic impairment was significantly correlated with the severity of brain injury visible by MRI in this group of infants.

“By including heart rate variability measurements and other markers of autonomic function in our current predictive armamentarium,” says Dr. Massaro, “we may be able to offer new hope for infants with HIE.”

In addition to Dr. Massaro, the Senior Author, study co-authors include Lead Author, Heather Campbell, M.D.; Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., Children’s Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab; Srinivas Kota, Ph.D.; Tareq Al-Shargabi, M.S.; Marina Metzler, B.S.; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Children’s neonatalogist; Taeun Chang, M.D., Children’s neonatal and fetal neurologist; L. Gilbert Vezina, M.D., attending in Children’s Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; and Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., chief of Children’s Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine.

This research was supported by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National under awards UL1TR000075 and 1KL2RR031987-01 and the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Consortium within the National Institutes of Health under award P30HD040677.

Preemie Baby

Brain food for preemies

Preemie Baby

Babies born prematurely – before 37 weeks of pregnancy – often have a lot of catching up to do. Not just in size. Preterm infants typically lag behind their term peers in a variety of areas as they grow up, including motor development, behavior and school performance.

New research suggests one way to combat this problem. The study, led by Children’s researchers and presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2018 annual meeting, suggests that the volume of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and calories consumed by very vulnerable premature infants significantly contributes to increased brain volume and white matter development, even though additional research is needed to determine specific nutritional approaches that best support these infants’ developing brains.

During the final weeks of pregnancy, the fetal brain undergoes an unprecedented growth spurt, dramatically increasing in volume as well as structural complexity as the fetus approaches full term.

One in 10 infants born in the U.S. in 2016 was born before 37 weeks of gestation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within this group, very low birthweight preemies are at significant risk for growth failure and neurocognitive impairment. Nutritional support in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) helps to encourage optimal brain development among preterm infants. However, their brain growth rates still lag behind those seen in full-term newborns.

“Few studies have investigated the impact of early macronutrient and caloric intake on microstructural brain development in vulnerable preterm infants,” says Katherine Ottolini, lead author of the Children’s-led study. “Advanced quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques may help to fill that data gap in order to better direct targeted interventions to newborns who are most in need.”

The research team at Children’s National Health System enrolled 69 infants who were born younger than 32 gestational weeks and weighed less than 1,500 grams. The infants’ mean birth weight was 970 grams and their mean gestational age at birth was 27.6 weeks.

The newborns underwent MRI at their term-equivalent age, 40 weeks gestation. Parametric maps were generated for fractional anisotropy in regions of the cerebrum and cerebellum for diffusion tensor imaging analyses, which measures brain connectivity and white matter tract integrity. The research team also tracked nutritional data: Grams per kilogram of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and overall caloric intake.

“We found a significantly negative association between fractional anisotropy and cumulative macronutrient/caloric intake,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of Children’s Developing Brain Research Laboratory and senior author of the research. “Curiously, we also find significantly negative association between macronutrient/caloric intake and regional brain volume in the cortical and deep gray matter, cerebellum and brainstem.”

Because the nutritional support does contribute to cerebral volumes and white matter microstructural development in very vulnerable newborns, Limperopoulos says the significant negative associations seen in this study may reflect the longer period of time these infants relied on nutritional support in the NICU.

In addition to Ottolini and Limperopoulos, study co-authors include Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Children’s Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine; and Kushal Kapse.

Sarah Mulkey

MRI finds novel brain defects in Zika-exposed newborns

Sarah Mulkey

“Imaging is constantly helping us make new discoveries with this virus, and in these two cases we found things that had not been previously described,” says Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has identified two brain abnormalities never before reported in newborns with prenatal exposure to the Zika virus. Children’s National Health System researchers reported these findings from a study of more than 70 fetuses or newborns with Zika exposure in utero. The study was published in the January 2018 edition of Pediatric Neurology.

The two novel defects – cranial nerve enhancement and cerebral infarction – may join the growing list of neurological findings associated with congenital Zika infection.

“Imaging is constantly helping us make new discoveries with this virus, and in these two cases we found things that had not been previously described,” says Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s lead author and a fetal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National. Dr. Mulkey works in Children’s Congenital Zika Virus Program, one of the nation’s first comprehensive, dedicated Zika programs.

The research team recommends that postnatal brain MRI be considered in addition to ultrasound for newborns exposed to Zika in utero. “Brain MRI can be performed in the newborn often without sedation and provides an opportunity to look for brain abnormalities we might not catch otherwise – or might not detect until much later,” says Dr. Mulkey.

Birth defects are seen in 6 to 11 percent of pregnancies affected by Zika, and some of the neurological complications in infants are not apparent until well after birth.

Of the two infants in which the new abnormalities were observed, both had normal head size at birth. Neither had smaller-than-normal head size (microcephaly), one of the more severe effects associated with congenital Zika syndrome.

One infant had a normal neurological evaluation at 2 days of age. However, a brain MRI conducted the following day, using gadolinium contrast due to concern of infection, showed enhancement of multiple cranial nerves. “Nerve root enhancement is very rare in a newborn and had not been described with Zika before,” Dr. Mulkey says. “Yet, there was no neurological deficit that we could identify by physical exam.”

The research team acknowledges that the clinical significance of this finding is not yet known.

In the second patient, brain MRI conducted without contrast at 16 days of age revealed a small area consistent with chronic infarction (ischemic stroke) that likely occurred during the third trimester.

“We followed the mother throughout her pregnancy, and both MRI and ultrasound imaging were normal at 28 weeks gestation,” Dr. Mulkey says. “A postnatal ultrasound was also normal, but the postnatal MRI showed a stroke that had occurred at least one month prior to the MRI and after the last fetal study.”

She adds: “This is the first published report of fetal stroke associated with Zika infection, and it may add to our knowledge of what can occur with congenital Zika infection.”

Unlike most congenital infections, Zika virus does not appear to cause viral-induced placental inflammation, which can lead to fetal stroke. So, the authors say they cannot be sure that congenital Zika contributed to the infarct in this case. However, they write, “Given the relatively low incidence of perinatal ischemic infarct and the lack of other maternal- or birth-related risk factors for this patient, Zika infection is considered a possible etiology.”

In both patients, neonatal brain MRI identified subclinical findings that had not previously been described as part of congenital Zika syndrome. As the body of evidence about the Zika virus has grown, the spectrum of associated brain abnormalities has expanded to include considerably more findings than isolated microcephaly.

Data gathered in 2017 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Zika pregnancy and infant registry indicates that 25 percent of eligible U.S. infants receive recommended postnatal imaging. Dr. Mulkey said this represents many possible missed opportunities for earlier identification of brain abnormalities.

“Brain MRI should be considered in all newborns exposed to Zika virus in utero, even in the presence of normal birth head circumference, normal cranial ultrasound and normal fetal imaging,” she says. “In both of these patients, the changes we observed were not evident on cranial ultrasound or on fetal MRI and fetal ultrasound.”

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, Children’s co-authors include L. Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Neuroradiology Program director; Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D., chief of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; Zarir Khademian, M.D., radiologist; Anna Blask, M.D., radiologist; Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., child neurology fellow; Lindsay Pesacreta, FNP; Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., Fetal Medicine Institute director; and Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., senior author and Pediatric Infectious Disease division chief; and Caitlin Cristante, B.S.

Financial support for this research was provided by the Thrasher Research Fund.

banner year

2017: A banner year for innovation at Children’s National

banner year

In 2017, clinicians and research faculty working at Children’s National Health System published more than 850 research articles about a wide array of topics. A multidisciplinary Children’s Research Institute review group selected the top 10 articles for the calendar year considering, among other factors, work published in high-impact academic journals.

“This year’s honorees showcase how our multidisciplinary institutes serve as vehicles to bring together Children’s specialists in cross-cutting research and clinical collaborations,” says Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., Physician-in-Chief and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National. “We’re honored that the National Institutes of Health and other funders have provided millions in awards that help to ensure that these important research projects continue.”

The published papers explain research that includes using imaging to describe the topography of the developing brains of infants with congenital heart disease, how high levels of iron may contribute to neural tube defects and using an incisionless surgery method to successfully treat osteoid osteoma. The top 10 Children’s papers:

Read the complete list.

Dr. Batshaw’s announcement comes on the eve of Research and Education Week 2018 at Children’s National, a weeklong event that begins April 16, 2018. This year’s theme, “Diversity powers innovation,” underscores the cross-cutting nature of Children’s research that aims to transform pediatric care.

Pregnant-Mom

MRI opens new understanding of fetal growth restriction

Pregnant-Mom

Quantitative MRI can identify placental dysfunction complicated by fetal growth restriction earlier, creating the possibility for earlier intervention to minimize harm to the developing fetus.

A team of researchers has found that quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can identify pregnancies where placental dysfunction results in fetal growth restriction (FGR), creating the possibility for earlier FGR detection and intervention to augment placental function and thus minimize harm to the fetal brain.

The study, published online in the Journal of Perinatology, reports for the first time that in vivo placental volume is tied to global and regional fetal brain volumes.

Placental insufficiency is a known risk factor for impaired fetal growth and neurodevelopment. It may cause the fetus to receive inadequate oxygen and nutrients, making it difficult to grow and thrive. The earlier placental insufficiency occurs in a pregnancy, the more serious it can be. But detecting a failing placenta before the fetus is harmed has been difficult.

One additional challenge is that a fetus may be small because the placenta is not providing adequate nourishment. Or the fetus simply may be genetically predisposed to be smaller. Being able to tell the difference early can have a lifelong impact on a baby. Infants affected by FGR can experience behavioral problems, learning difficulties, memory and attention deficits, and psychiatric issues as the child grows into adolescence and adulthood.

“Our study proved that MRI can more accurately determine which pregnancies are at greater risk for impaired fetal health or compromised placenta function,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., the study’s lead author and a specialist in neonatology and neonatal neurology and neonatal critical care at Children’s National Health System. “The earlier we can identify these pregnancies, the more thoughtful we can be in managing care.”

Dr. Andescavage’s research focus has been how fetal growth affects labor, delivery and postnatal complications.

Nickie-Andescavage-Niforatos

“Our study proved that MRI can more accurately determine which pregnancies are at greater risk for impaired fetal health or compromised placenta function,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., the study’s lead author.

“We don’t have a good understanding of why FGR happens, but we do know it’s hard to identify during pregnancy because often there are no signs,” says Dr. Andescavage. “Even when detected, it’s hard to follow. But if we’re aware of it, we can better address important questions, like when to deliver an at-risk fetus.”

In the study, the team measured placental and fetal brain growth in healthy, uncomplicated pregnancies and in pregnancies complicated by FGR. A total of 114 women participated, undergoing ultrasound, Doppler ultrasound and MRI imaging to measure placental volume and fetal brain volume.

An ultrasound test is often what detects FGR, but the measurements generated by ultrasound can be non-specific. In addition, reproducibility issues with 3D sonography limit its use as a standalone tool for placental assessment. Once FGR is detected via ultrasound, this study showed that complementary MRI provides more accurate structural measures of the fetal brain, as well as more detail and insight into placental growth and function.

“Our team has studied FGR for a few years, using imaging to see that’s happening with the fetus in real time,” says Dr. Andescavage. “The relationship of placental volume and fetal brain development had not been previously studied in utero.”

In pregnancies complicated by FGR, MRI showed markedly decreased placental and brain volumes. The team observed significantly smaller placental, total brain, cerebral and cerebellar volumes in these cases than in the healthy controls. The relationship between increasing placental volume and increasing total brain volume was similar in FGR and in normal pregnancies. However, the study authors write “the overall volumes were smaller and thus shifted downward in pregnancies with FGR.”

In addition, FGR-complicated pregnancies that also showed abnormalities in Doppler ultrasound imaging had even smaller placental, cerebral and cerebellar volumes than pregnancies complicated by FGR that did not have aberrations in Doppler imaging.

Since this study showed that quantitative fetal MRI can accurately detect decreased placental and brain volumes when FGR is present, Dr. Andescavage believes this imaging technique may give doctors important new insights into the timing and possibly the mechanisms of brain injury in FGR.  “Different pathways can lead to FGR. With this assessment strategy, we could potentially elucidate those,” she adds.

Using quantitative MRI to identify early deviations from normal growth may create opportunities for future interventions to protect the developing fetal brain. New treatments on the horizon promise to address placental health. MRI could be used to investigate these potential therapies in utero. When those therapies become available, it could allow doctors to monitor treatment effects in utero.

Study co-authors include Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., Director of Children’s Fetal Medicine Institute; Marina Metzler; Dorothy Bulas, M.D., FACR, FAIUM, FSRU, Chief of Children’s Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; L. Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Director of Children’s Neuroradiology Program; Marni Jacobs; Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., Director of Children’s Developing Brain Research Laboratory and study senior author; Sabah N. Iqbal, MedStar Washington Hospital Center; and Ahmet Alexander Baschat, Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy.

Research reported in this post was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, MOP-81116; the National Institutes of Health under award numbers UL1TR000075 and KL2TR000076; and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National.

Volumetric imaging of upper airways

Preemies’ narrowed upper airways may explain higher OSA risk

Volumetric imaging of upper airways

The airway structures of interest to the Children’s National research team included the nasopharynx (labeled red), oropharynx (labeled purple), hypopharynx (labeled green), adenoids (labeled yellow) and tonsils (labeled blue). The team displayed the volumetric imaging in three perpendicular planes and a three-dimensional model.
Credit: A. Smitthimedhin, et al, Clinical Imaging.

Infants born preterm have significantly lower nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal volumes, compared with newborn peers carried to full term, and those lower airway volumes are independent of the infants’ gender, ethnicity or weight, according to a study published online Dec. 16, 2017 in Clinical Imaging.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 babies born in the United States is preterm, or born prior to the 37th gestational week. Premature birth leaves these children more susceptible to disordered breathing while sleeping, including obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), an ailment characterized by increased upper-airway resistance that narrows airways.

“In addition to finding some airway volumes were smaller in preterm infants, our results indicated both sets of newborns had similar hypopharyngeal volumes. This suggests that risk factors that lead to OSA are confined to the uppermost airway and do not appear to be explained by enlarged adenoids and tonsils,” says Anilawan Smitthimedhin, a Children’s National Health System radiology research fellow at the time the study was performed and lead author of the paper.

In order to diagnose OSA, clinicians now use bronchoscopy, but the method has limitations, including the need to insert a lighted instrument into the airway, which can affect pressure and resistance within the airway.

The Children’s National research team theorized that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) could offer a non-invasive way to evaluate the upper airway, determine its anatomy and dynamic function, while shielding infants from radiation exposure that can accompany other imaging techniques.

They enrolled 96 infants who had undergone brain MRIs as part of an unrelated study about neonatal brain development. The newborns had a range of medical conditions, including suspected hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, cardiac disease and seizures/movement disorders.

Forty-nine of the infants were born preterm; at the time of the MRI, their corrected mean gestational age was 38.4 weeks. Forty-seven of the newborns were born full term; they received MRIs at 1.7 weeks of age. The airway structures of interest included the nasopharynx (the upper part of the pharynx), oropharynx (located at the back of the mouth behind the oral cavity), hypopharynx (the entrance into the esophagus), adenoids and tonsils. The team displayed the volumetric imaging in three perpendicular planes and a three-dimensional model.

“Nasopharyngeal volume of full-term infants was 495.6 mm, compared with 221.1 mm in preterm infants. Oropharyngeal volume of full-term infants was 313.6 mm, compared with 179.3 mm in preterm infants,” Smitthimedhin says.

Aided by volumetric 3D data that more accurately measures airway and lymphoid tissue, the team proposes to study a larger group of infants to determine whether narrowing of the uppermost airways predisposes very young children to experiencing OSA later in life.

“Ultimately, our goal is to incorporate dedicated, dynamic MR imaging of the airway while children sleep, which would provide real-time, detailed information about the changes associated with sleep. This innovation holds the promise of leading to more accurate, non-invasive diagnosis of OSA in infants,” says Dorothy Bulas, M.D., chief of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology at Children’s National.

Children’s National study co-authors include Radiologist Matthew Whitehead, M.D.; University of Maryland student Mahya Bigdeli; Pulmonologist Gustavo Nino Barrera, M.D.; Pulmonologist Geovanny Perez, M.D,; and Hansel Otero, who was at Children’s National when the research work was performed but now works at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Javad Nazarian

Liquid biopsy spots aggressive brainstem cancer earlier

Javad Nazarian

A Children’s National research team led by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., tested whether circulating tumor DNA in patients’ blood and cerebrospinal fluid would provide an earlier warning that pediatric brainstem tumors were growing.

A highly aggressive pediatric brain cancer can be spotted earlier and reliably by the genetic fragments it leaves in biofluids, according to a study presented by Children’s National Health System researchers at the Society for Neuro-Oncology (SNO) 2017 Annual Meeting. The findings may open the door to non-surgical biopsies and a new way to tell if these tumors are responding to treatment.

Children diagnosed with diffuse midline histone 3 K27M mutant (H3K27M) glioma face a poor prognosis with a median survival time of only nine months after the pediatric brainstem cancer is diagnosed. Right now, clinicians rely on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to gauge how tumors are growing, but MRI can miss very small changes in tumor size. The Children’s research team led by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.S.C., scientific director of Children’s Brain Tumor Institute, tested whether circulating tumor DNA in patients’ blood and cerebrospinal fluid would provide an earlier warning that tumors were growing. Just as a detective looks for fingerprints left at a scene, the new genetic analysis technique can detect telltale signs that tumors leave behind in body fluids.

“We continue to push the envelope to find ways to provide hope for children and families who right now face a very dismal future. By identifying these tumors when they are small and, potentially more responsive to treatment, our ultimate aim is to help children live longer,” says Eshini Panditharatna, B.A., study lead author. “In addition, we are hopeful that the comprehensive panel of tests we are constructing could identify which treatments are most effective in shrinking these deadly tumors.”

The researchers collected biofluid samples from 22 patients with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) who were enrolled in a Phase I, Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium clinical trial. Upfront and longitudinal plasma samples were collected with each MRI at various stages of disease progression. The team developed a liquid biopsy assay using a sensitive digital droplet polymerase chain reaction system that precisely counts individual DNA molecules.

“We detected H3K27M, a major driver mutation in DIPG, in about 80 percent of cerebrospinal fluid and plasma samples,” Panditharatna says. “Similar to adults with central nervous system (CNS) cancers, cerebrospinal fluid of children diagnosed with CNS cancers has high concentrations of circulating tumor DNA. However, after the children underwent radiotherapy, there was a dramatic decrease in circulating tumor DNA for 12 of the 15 patients (80 percent) whose temporal plasma was analyzed.”

Nazarian, the study senior author adds: “Biofluids, like plasma and cerebrospinal fluid, are suitable media to detect and measure concentrations of circulating tumor DNA for this type of pediatric glioma. Liquid biopsy has the potential to complement tissue biopsies and MRI evaluation to provide earlier clues to how tumors are responding to treatment or recurring.”

Support for this liquid biopsy study was provided by the V Foundation, Goldwin Foundation, Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, Smashing Walnuts Foundation, the Zickler Family Foundation, the Piedmont Community Foundation, the Musella Foundation, the Mathew Larson Foundation and Brain Tumor Foundation for Children.

nurse holding newborn baby

Continuous EEG monitoring better predicts HIE outcomes

nurse holding newborn baby

For newborns who experience a serious complication that deprives their brain of oxygen, continuously monitoring brain activity and examining how the electrical signals evolve may be a more reliable way to identify infants most at risk for brain injury.

For newborns who experience a serious complication that deprives their brain of oxygen, continuously monitoring brain activity and examining how the electrical signals evolve may be a more reliable way to identify infants most at risk for brain injury, compared with doing evaluations at discreet intervals, according to a prospective cohort study led by Children’s National Health System research-clinicians.

Amplitude-integrated electroencephalogram (aEEG) is a bedside tool that permits clinicians to monitor the complex electrical activity of the child’s brain over time. It’s a positive sign when an aEEG shows babies beginning to sleep and wake normally by the time they are 3 days old. Conversely, severely abnormal aEEG readings in the first days of life predict poor outcomes.

The Children’s team used aEEG with infants born with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), one of the most severe complications that can affect full-term infants. During pregnancy, birth or shortly after birth, a hypoxic-ischemic event can occur that impedes blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, resulting in destruction of brain tissue. Cooling (therapeutic hypothermia) is now standard for newborns with HIE in order to stave off life-long consequences, but deaths and neurodevelopmental disability still can occur.

“We know whole-body cooling – or lowering the body’s temperature by about 3 degrees Celsius – can help vulnerable newborns survive and can protect their brains from suffering profound injuries,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., a Children’s National neonatologist and senior author of the study published online Sept. 28, 2017 in American Journal of Perinatology.  “What we were trying to determine with this study is whether evaluating the pattern of evolution of the aEEG as a whole provides more information compared with looking at snapshots in time.”

Eighty infants undergoing therapeutic cooling who met the inclusion criteria were enrolled in the five-year study, one of the largest such studies to date. The babies weighed more than 1,800 grams and were older than 35 weeks’ gestational age at birth, and either needed prolonged resuscitation after birth or had low APGAR scores – a measure of how well newborns fare outside the womb. Continuous recordings of EEG data occurred from the time of admission up to 12 hours after the infants’ temperatures were raised to normal and aEEG tracings were calculated.

After the therapeutic cooling blankets were removed, the infants underwent at least one magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan prior to discharge. During the routine follow-up check at about 18 months of age, the HIE survivors’ cognitive and motor skills were assessed using validated instruments.

Fifty-six of the infants in the study had favorable outcomes. Twenty-four infants had adverse outcomes, including 15 with severe brain injury detected by MRI and nine infants who died. These children had lower APGAR scores at five minutes, and were more likely to have severe HIE and to have experienced more frequent seizures.

“Infants whose aEEG abnormalities do not improve were at increased risk: Infants who do not reach a discontinuous background pattern by 15.5 hours of life, achieve cycling by 45.5 hours after birth and who fail to achieve continuous normal voltage by 78 hours after birth are most at risk for adverse outcomes,” Dr. Massaro says. “In addition to defining worrisome trends, we found that overall assessment of continuous aEEG readings through the course of hypothermia treatment provide the most meaningful predictive power. This means we can speak with families at the bedside with more confidence about their child’s outcomes after the infant undergoes cooling therapy.”

Related Resources

Sarah Mulkey

Fetal MRI plus ultrasound assess Zika-related brain changes

Sarah Mulkey

Magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound provide complementary data needed to assess ongoing changes to the brains of fetuses exposed to Zika in utero, says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

For Zika-affected pregnancies, fetal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in addition to standard ultrasound (US) imaging can better assess potential brain abnormalities in utero, according to research presented by Children’s National Health System during IDWeek 2017. In cases of abnormal brain structure, fetal MRI can reveal more extensive areas of damage to the developing brain than is seen with US.

“MRI and US provide complementary data needed to assess ongoing changes to the brains of fetuses exposed to Zika in utero,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal/neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Health System and lead author of the research paper. “In addition, our study found that relying on ultrasound alone would have given one mother the false assurance that her fetus’ brain was developing normally while the sharper MRI clearly pointed to brain abnormalities.”

As of Sept. 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 1,901 U.S. women were exposed to Zika at some point during their pregnancies but their infants appeared normal at birth. Another 98 U.S. women, however, gave birth to infants with Zika-related birth defects.  And eight more women had pregnancy losses with Zika-related birth defects, according to CDC registries.

The longitudinal neuroimaging study led by Children’s National enrolled 48 pregnant women exposed to the Zika virus in the first or second trimester whose infection was confirmed by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, which detects Zika viral fragments shortly after exposure, and/or Immunoglobulin M testing, which reveals antibodies the body produces to neutralize the virus. Forty-six of the study volunteers live in Barranquilla, Colombia, where Zika infection is endemic. Two women live in the Washington region and were exposed to Zika during travel elsewhere.

All of the women underwent at least one diagnostic imaging session while pregnant, receiving an initial MRI or US at 25.1 weeks’ gestational age. Thirty-six women underwent a second MRI/US imaging pair at roughly 31 weeks’ gestation. Children’s National radiologists read every image.

Three of 48 pregnancies, or 6 percent, were marked by abnormal fetal MRIs:

  • One fetus had heterotopias (clumps of grey matter located at the wrong place) and abnormal cortical indent (a deformation at the outer layer of the cerebrum, a brain region involved in consciousness). The US taken at the same gestational age for this fetus showed its brain was developing normally.
  • Another fetus had parietal encephalocele (an uncommon skull defect) and Chiari malformation Type II (a life-threatening structural defect at the base of the skull and the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance). The US for this fetus also detected these brain abnormalities.
  • The third fetus had a thin corpus callosum (bundle of nerves that connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres), an abnormally developed brain stem, temporal cysts, subependymal heterotopias and general cerebral/cerebellar atrophy. This fetal US showed significant ventriculomegaly (fluid-filled structures in the brain that are too large) and a fetal head circumference that decreased sharply from the 32nd to 36th gestational week, a hallmark of microcephaly.

After they were born, infants underwent a follow-up MRI without sedation and US. For nine infants, these ultrasounds revealed cysts in the choroid plexus (cells that produce cerebrospinal fluid) or germinal matrix (the source for neurons and glial cells that migrate during brain development). And one infant’s US after birth showed lenticulostriate vasculopathy (brain lesions).

“Because a number of factors can trigger brain abnormalities, further studies are needed to determine whether the cystic changes to these infants’ brains are attributable to Zika exposure in the womb or whether some other insult caused these troubling results,” Dr. Mulkey says.

Catherine Limperopoulous

Brain impairment in newborns with CHD prior to surgery

Catherine Limperopoulous

Children’s National researchers led by Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., demonstrate for the first time that the brains of high-risk infants show signs of functional impairment before they undergo corrective cardiac surgery.

Newborns with congenital heart disease (CHD) requiring open-heart surgery face a higher risk for neurodevelopmental disabilities, yet prior studies had not examined whether functional brain connectivity is altered in these infants before surgery.

Findings from a Children’s National Health System study of this question suggest the presence of brain dysfunction early in the lives of infants with CHD that may be associated with neurodevelopmental impairments years later.

Using a novel imaging technique, Children’s National researchers demonstrated for the first time that the brains of these high-risk infants already show signs of functional impairment even before they undergo corrective open heart surgery. Looking at the newborns’ entire brain topography, the team found intact global organization – efficient and effective small world networks – yet reduced functional connectivity between key brain regions.

“A robust neural network is critical for neurons to travel to their intended destinations and for the body to carry out nerve cells’ instructions. In this study, we found the density of connections among rich club nodes was diminished, and there was reduced connectivity between critical brain hubs,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior author of the study published online Sept. 28, 2017 in NeuroImage: Clinical. “CHD disrupts how oxygenated blood flows throughout the body, including to the brain. Despite disturbed hemodynamics, infants with CHD still are able to efficiently transfer neural information among neighboring areas of the brain and across distant regions.”

The research team led by Josepheen De Asis-Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., compared whole brain functional connectivity in 82 healthy, full-term newborns and 30 newborns with CHD prior to corrective heart surgery. Conventional imaging had detected no brain injuries in either group. The team used resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fcMRI), a imaging technique that characterizes fluctuating blood oxygen level dependent signals from different regions of the brain, to map the effect of CHD on newborns’ developing brains.

The newborns with CHD had lower birth weights and lower APGAR scores (a gauge of how well brand-new babies fare outside the womb) at one and five minutes after birth. Before the scan, the infants were fed, wrapped snugly in warm blankets, securely positioned using vacuum pillows, and their ears were protected with ear plugs and ear muffs.

While the infants with CHD had intact global network topology, a close examination of specific brain regions revealed functional disturbances in a subnetwork of nodes in newborns with cardiac disease. The subcortical regions were involved in most of those affected connections. The team also found weaker functional connectivity between right and left thalamus (the region that processes and transmits sensory information) and between the right thalamus and the left supplementary motor area (the section of the cerebral cortex that helps to control movement). The regions with reduced functional connectivity depicted by rs-fcMRI match up with regional brain anomalies described in imaging studies powered by conventional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging.

“Global network organization is preserved, despite CHD, and small world brain networks in newborns show a remarkable ability to withstand brain injury early in life,” Limperopoulos adds. “These intact, efficient small world networks bode well for targeting early therapy and rehabilitative interventions to lower the newborns’ risk of developing long-term neurological deficits that can contribute to problems with executive function, motor function, learning and social behavior.”

Sarah Mulkey Columbia Zika Study

Damage may lurk in “normal” Zika-exposed brains

Sarah Mulkey Columbia Zika Study

An international study that includes Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., aims to answer one of the most vexing questions about Zika: If babies’ brains appear “normal” at birth, have they survived Zika exposure in the womb with few neurological repercussions? Dr. Mulkey presented preliminary findings at PAS2017.

It has been well established by researchers, including scientists at Children’s National Health System, that the Zika virus is responsible for a slew of birth defects – such as microcephaly, other brain malformations and retinal damage – in babies of infected mothers. But how the virus causes these often devastating effects, and who exactly is affected, has not been explained fully.

Also unknown is whether exposed babies that appear normal at birth are truly unaffected by the virus or have hidden problems that might surface later. The majority of babies born to Zika-infected mothers in the United States appear to have no evidence of Zika-caused birth defects, but that’s no guarantee that the virus has not caused lingering damage.

Recently, Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., made a trip to Colombia, where Children’s National researchers are collaborating on a clinical study. There, she tested Zika-affected babies’ motor skills as they sat, stood and lay facing upward and downward. The international study aims to answer one of the most vexing questions about Zika: If babies’ brains appear “normal” at birth, have they survived Zika exposure in the womb with few neurological repercussions?

“We don’t know the long-term neurological consequences of having Zika if your brain looks normal,” says Dr. Mulkey, a fetal-neonatal neurologist who is a member of Children’s Congenital Zika Virus Program. “That is what’s so scary, the uncertainty about long-term outcomes.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 10 pregnancies across the United States with laboratory-confirmed Zika virus infection results in birth defects in the fetus or infant. For the lion’s share of Zika-affected pregnancies, then, babies’ long-term prospects remain a mystery.

“This is a huge number of children to be impacted and the impact, as we understand, has the potential to be pretty significant,” Dr. Mulkey adds.

Dr. Mulkey, the lead author, presented the research group’s preliminary findings during the 2017 annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS). The presentation was one of several that focused on the Zika virus. Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National, organized two invited symposia devoted to the topic of Zika: Clinical perspectives and knowledge gaps; and the science of Zika, including experimental models of disease and vaccines. Dr. DeBiasi’s presentation included an overview of the 68 Zika-exposed or infected women and infants seen thus far by Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program.

“As the world’s largest pediatric research meeting, PAS2017 is an ideal setting for panelists to provide comprehensive epidemiologic and clinical updates about the emergence of Congenital Zika Syndrome and to review the pathogenesis of infection as it relates to the fetal brain,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “With temperatures already rising to levels that support spread of the Aedes mosquito, it is imperative for pediatricians around the world to share the latest research findings to identify the most effective interventions.”

As one example, Dr. Mulkey’s research sought to evaluate the utility of using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate fetal brain abnormalities in 48 babies whose mothers had confirmed Zika infection during pregnancy. Forty-six of the women/infant pairs enrolled in the prospective study are Colombian, and two are Washington, D.C. women who were exposed during travel to a Zika hot zone.

The women were infected with Zika during all three trimesters and experienced symptoms at a mean gestational age of 8.4 weeks. The first fetal MRIs were performed as early as 18 weeks’ gestation. Depending upon the gestational age when they were enrolled in the study, the participants had at least one fetal MRI as well as serial ultrasounds. Thirty-six fetuses had a second fetal MRI at about 31.1 gestational weeks. An experienced pediatric neuroradiologist evaluated the images.

Among the 48 study participants, 45 had “normal” fetal MRIs.

Three fetuses exposed to Zika in the first or second trimester had abnormal fetal MRIs:

  • One had heterotopia and an early, abnormal fold on the surface of the brain, indications that neurons did not migrate to their anticipated destination during brain development. This pregnancy was terminated at 23.9 gestational weeks.
  • One had parietal encephalocele, a rare birth defect that results in a sac-like protrusion of the brain through an opening in the skull. According to the CDC, this defect affects one in 12,200 births, or 340 babies, per year. It is not known if this rare finding is related to Zika infection.
  • One had a thin corpus callosum, dysplastic brainstem, heterotopias, significant ventriculomegaly and generalized cerebral/cerebellar atrophy.

“Fetal brain MRI detected early structural brain changes in fetuses exposed to the Zika virus in the first and second trimester,” Dr. Mulkey says. “The vast majority of fetuses exposed to Zika in our study had normal fetal MRI, however. Our ongoing study, underwritten by the Thrasher Research Fund, will evaluate their long-term neurodevelopment.”

Adré J. du Plessis, MB.Ch.B., M.P.H., director of the Fetal Medicine Institute and senior author of the paper, notes that this group “is a very important cohort to follow as long as Dr. Mulkey’s funding permits. We know that microcephaly is among the more devastating side effects caused by Zika exposure in utero. Unanswered questions remain about Zika’s impact on hearing, vision and cognition for a larger group of infants. Definitive answers only will come with long-term follow-up.”

Many of the Colombian families live in Sabanalarga, a relatively rural, impoverished area with frequent rain, leaving pockets of fresh water puddles that the mosquito that spreads Zika prefers, Dr. Mulkey adds. Families rode buses for hours for access to fetal MRI technology, which is not common in Colombia.

“The mothers are worried about their babies. They want to know if their babies are doing OK,” she says.

Setting a baseline for healthy brain development

Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., and colleagues performed the largest magnetic resonance imaging study of normal fetal brains in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

Starting as a speck barely visible to the naked eye and ending the in utero phase of its journey at an average weight of 7.5 pounds, the growth of the human fetus is one of the most amazing events in biology. Of all the organs, the fetal brain undergoes one of the most rapid growth trajectories, expanding over 40 weeks from zero to 100 billion neurons — about as many brain cells as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

This exponential growth is part of what gives humans our unique abilities to use language or have abstract thoughts, among many other cognitive skills. It also leaves the brain extremely vulnerable should disruptions occur during fetal development. Any veering off the developmental plan can lead to a cascade of results that have long-lasting repercussions. For example, studies have shown that placental insufficiency, or the inability of the placenta to supply the fetus with oxygen and nutrients in utero, is associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and schizophrenia.

Recent research has identified differences in the brains of people with these disorders compared with those without. Despite the almost certain start of these conditions within the womb, they have remained impossible to diagnose until children begin to show clinical symptoms. If only researchers could spot the beginnings of these problems early in development, says Children’s National Health System researcher Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., they might someday be able to develop interventions that could turn the fetal brain back toward a healthy developmental trajectory.

“Conventional tools like ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can identify structural brain abnormalities connected to these problems, but by the time these differences become apparent, the damage already has been done,” Limperopoulos says. “Our goal is to be able to pick up very early deviations from normal in the high-risk pregnancy before an injury to the fetus might become permanent.”

Before scientists can recognize abnormal, she adds, they first need to understand what normal looks like.

In a new study published in Cerebral Cortex, Limperopoulos and colleagues begin to tackle this question through the largest MRI study of normal fetal brains in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. While other studies have attempted to track normal fetal brain growth, that research has not involved nearly as many subjects and typically relied on data collected when fetuses were referred for MRIs for a suspected problem. When the suspected abnormality was ruled out by the scan, these “quasi-controls” were considered “normal” — even though they may be at risk for problems later in life, Limperopoulos explains.

By contrast, the study she led recruited 166 healthy pregnant women from nearby low-risk obstetrics practices. Each woman had an unremarkable singleton pregnancy and ended up having a normal full-term delivery, with no evidence of problems affecting either the mother or fetus over the course of 40 weeks.

At least one time between 18 and 39 gestational weeks, the fetuses carried by these women underwent an MRI scan of their brains. The research team developed complex algorithms to account for movement (since neither the mothers nor their fetuses were sedated during scans) and to convert the two-dimensional images into three dimensions. They used the information from these scans to measure the increasing volumes of the cerebellum, an area of the brain connected to motor control and known to mediate cognitive skills; as well as regions of the cerebrum, the bulk of the brain, that is pivotal for movement, sensory processing, olfaction, language, and learning and memory.

Their results in uncomplicated, full-term pregnancies show that over 21 weeks in the second half of pregnancy, the cerebellum undergoes an astounding 34-fold increase in size. In the cerebrum, the fetal white matter, which connects various brain regions, grows 22-fold. The cortical gray matter, key to many of cerebrum’s functions, grows 21-fold. And the deep subcortical structures (thalamus and basal ganglia), important for relaying sensory information and coordination of movement and behavior, grow 10-fold. Additional examination showed that the left hemisphere has a larger volume than the right hemisphere early in development, but sizes of the left and right brain halves were equal by birth.

By developing similar datasets on high-risk pregnancies or births—for example, those in which fetuses are diagnosed with a problem in utero, mothers experience a significant health problem during pregnancy, babies are born prematurely, or fetuses have a sibling diagnosed with a health problem with genetic risk, such as autism—Limperopoulos says that researchers might be able to spot differences during gestation and post-natal development that lead to conditions such as schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder.

Eventually, researchers may be able to develop fixes so that babies grow up without life-long developmental issues.

“Understanding ‘normal’ is really opening up opportunities for us to begin to precisely pinpoint when things start to veer off track,” Limperopolous says. “Once we do that, opportunities that have been inaccessible will start to present themselves.”

Catherine Limperopoulos

Connection between abnormal placenta and impaired growth of fetuses discovered

CLimperopoulous

A team of researchers used 3-D volumetric magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in an innovative study that reported that when the placenta fails to grow adequately in a fetus with congenital heart disease (CHD), it contributes to impaired fetal growth and premature birth. Fetal CHD involves an abnormality of the heart and is associated with increased risk for neurodevelopmental morbidity.Until now, CHD in the fetus and its relationship to placental function has been unknown. But the advanced fetal imaging study has shown for the first time that abnormal growth in the fetus with CHD relates to impaired placental growth over the third trimester of pregnancy. Catherine Limperopoulos, PhD, Director of Children’s National Developing Brain Research Laboratory in the Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, is the senior author of the study published in the September 2015 issue of the journal Placenta, “3-D Volumetric MRI Evaluation of the Placenta in Fetuses With Complex Heart Disease.”

Specifically, the decreased 3-D volumetric MRI measurements of pregnant women reported in this study suggest placental insufficiency related to CHD. The placenta nourishes and maintains the fetus, through the delivery of food and oxygen. Its volume and weight can determine fetal growth and birth weight.

Abnormality in placental development may contribute to significant morbidity in this high risk-population. This study shows impaired placental growth in CHD fetuses is associated with the length of the pregnancy and weight at birth. Nearly 1 in every 100 babies is born in the United States with a congenital heart defect.

Developing the capacity to examine the placenta non-invasively using advanced MRI is needed to identify early markers of impaired placental structure and function in the high-risk pregnancy. This is a critical first step towards developing strategies for improved fetal monitoring and management, Dr. Limperopoulos says.

“We are trying to develop the earliest and most reliable indicators of placental health and disease in high-risk pregnancies. Our goal is to bring these early biomarkers into clinical practice and improve our ability to identify placental dysfunction,” Dr. Limperopoulos says. “If we can develop the capacity to reliably identify when things begin to veer off course, we then have a window of opportunity to develop therapies to restore function.”

The study used in-vivo 3-D MRI studies and explored placental development and its relationship to neonatal outcomes by comparing placental volumetric growth in healthy pregnancies and pregnancies complicated by CHD.

While mortality rates continue to decrease steadily in newborns diagnosed with complex CHD, long-term neurodevelopmental impairments are recognized with increasing frequency in surviving infants, Dr. Limperopoulos says.

“Our goal is to better support the developing fetus with CHD. We can best accomplish this if we develop technology that can allow us to safely and effectively monitor the fetal-placental unit as a whole throughout pregnancy,” Dr. Limperopoulos says.

“This is the new frontier, not only to ensure survival but to safeguard the fetus and to ensure the best possible quality of life,” she says.