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glial cells

Dr. Nathan A. Smith receives $600,000 DOD ARO grant to study the role of glial cells in neural excitability and cognition

glial cells

Microglia are the resident immune cells of the central nervous system that have highly dynamic processes that continuously survey the brain’s microenvironment, making contact with both neurons and astrocytes.

In his pursuit to understand the function of neural circuits within the brain, Nathan A. Smith, M.S., Ph.D., principal investigator at Children’s National Hospital, is examining how specialized glial cells, known as astrocytes and microglia, work together to influence neural networks and potentially enhance neuro-cognition.

Dr. Smith has just secured a new $600,000 grant from the Department of Defense Army Research Laboratory to pursue cutting-edge experimental approaches to examine the role of astrocytes in Ca2+-dependent microglia modulation of synaptic activity. This project will enhance our understanding of neuronal excitability and cognition, and define a new role for microglia in these processes.

“Glia cells play an important role in modulating synaptic function via Ca2+-dependent mechanisms,” says Dr. Smith. “It’s time for these cells to receive recognition as active participants, rather than passive contributors, in fundamental neural processes.”

Dr. Smith and his laboratory at Children’s National Research Institute are using novel experimental models to study the dynamics underlying Ca2+-mediated microglia process extension and retraction to further our understanding of how microglia, astrocytes and neurons interact in the healthy brain.

“Completion of the proposed studies has the potential to redefine the role(s) of microglia in higher brain functions and highlight the significant contribution of these cells,” Dr. Smith says. “Most importantly, elucidating the mechanisms that underlie glial cell modulation of neural circuits will not only further our understanding of normal brain function but also open new avenues to developing more accurate computational models of neural circuits.”

Dr. Nathan Smith

Dr. Smith and his laboratory at Children’s National Research Institute are using novel experimental models to study the dynamics underlying Ca2+-mediated microglia process extension and retraction to further our understanding of how microglia, astrocytes and neurons interact in the healthy brain.

Microglia are the resident immune cells of the central nervous system that have highly dynamic processes that continuously survey the brain’s microenvironment, making contact with both neurons and astrocytes. However, because of our inability to directly monitor Ca2+ activity in microglia, very little is known about the intracellular Ca2+ dynamics in resting microglia and their role in surveillance and modulation of synaptic activity.

Dr. Smith’s research team and his use of cutting-edge technology are a perfect match with the Army’s new modernization priorities. Dr. Smith’s research program and the new Army’s initiatives will greatly benefit from each other and ultimately contribute to a better understanding of the human brain.

“This research will help address a major gap in our understanding of the roles that glial cells play in regulating the computations of the nervous system through their interactions with neurons, which could also inspire a new class of artificial neural network architectures,” said Dr. Frederick Gregory, program manager, Army Research Office, an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory.

The grant will begin on July 1, 2020, and will last over three years. Dr. Smith’s research is also supported by other grants, including awards from the NIH and the National Science Foundation.

“As Dr. Smith’s mentor, the ultimate joy for a mentor is to see his mentees follow their dreams and be recognized for their accomplishments,” said Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National Hospital. “I couldn’t be prouder of Nathan, and I am fully confident that this new research grant will help him continue to grow an exceptional research program.”

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Focusing on the “little brain” to rescue cognition

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire Marie Vacher

Placental function linked to brain injuries associated with autism

Claire Marie Vacher

“We saw long-term cerebellar white matter alterations in male experimental models, and behavioral testing revealed social impairments and increased repetitive behaviors, two hallmark features of ASD,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead study author.

Allopregnanolone (ALLO), a hormone made by the placenta late in pregnancy, is such a potent neurosteroid that disrupting its steady supply to the developing fetus can leave it vulnerable to brain injuries associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

In order to more effectively treat vulnerable babies, the Children’s research team first had to tease out what goes wrong in the careful choreography that is pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 babies is born preterm, before 37 weeks of gestation. Premature birth is a major risk factor for ASD.

The placenta is an essential and understudied organ that is shared by the developing fetus and the pregnant mother, delivering oxygen, glucose and nutrients and ferrying out waste products. The placenta also delivers ALLO, a progesterone derivative, needed to ready the developing fetal brain for life outside the womb.

ALLO ramps up late in gestation. When babies are born prematurely, their supply of ALLO stops abruptly. That occurs at the same time the cerebellum – a brain region essential for motor coordination, posture, balance and social cognition– typically undergoes a dramatic growth spurt.

“Our experimental model demonstrates that losing placental ALLO alters cerebellar development, including white matter development,” says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the divisions of Neonatology and Fetal Medicine, and a developmental neuroscientist at Children’s National. “Cerebellar white matter development occurs primarily after babies are born, so connecting a change in placental function during pregnancy with lingering impacts on later brain development is a particularly striking result.”

The research team created a novel experimental model in which the gene encoding the enzyme responsible for producing ALLO is deleted in the placenta. They compared these preclinical models with a control group and performed whole brain imaging and RNAseq gene expression analyses for both groups.

“We saw long-term cerebellar white matter alterations in male experimental models, and behavioral testing revealed social impairments and increased repetitive behaviors, two hallmark features of ASD,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead study author. “These male-specific outcomes parallel the increased risk of brain injury and ASD we see in human babies born prematurely.”

ALLO binds to specific GABA receptors, which control most inhibitory signaling in the nervous system.

“Our findings provide a new way to frame poor placental function: Subtle but significant changes in utero may set in motion neurodevelopmental disorders that children experience later in life,” adds Dr. Penn, the study’s senior author. “Future directions for our research could include identifying new targets in the placenta or brain that could be amenable to hormone supplementation, opening the potential for earlier treatment for high-risk fetuses.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Placental allopregnanolone loss alters postnatal cerebellar development and function.”
    • Sunday, April 28, 2019, 5:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (EST)

Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead author; Jackie Salzbank, co-author; Helene Lacaille, co-author; Dana Bakalar, co-author; Jiaqi O’Reilly, co-author; and Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the divisions of Neonatology and Fetal Medicine, developmental neuroscientist and senior study author.

drawing of neurons

Children’s National to host 28th Annual Pediatric Neurology Update

drawing of neurons

The Children’s National Health System Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine is proud to host the 28th Annual Pediatric Neurology Update course.

This year’s course will be focused on new understandings, molecular pathogenesis, novel treatment and outcomes of infections which affect the central nervous system; as well as the often indistinct boundaries between CNS infections and neuro immunologic diseases of the nervous system.

We invite you to join us for presentations from renowned experts in the field in this full-day, CME accredited event on May 3, 2018 at the Children’s National main campus in Washington, D.C.

For more information and to register, visit ChildrensNational.org/NeurologyUpdate.

Vittorio Gallo

How the environment helps to shape the brain

Vittorio Gallo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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