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boy with a chromosomal developmental disability.

NIH award will support intellectual and developmental disabilities research at Children’s National

boy with a chromosomal developmental disability.

Children’s National Hospital announces a $7 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to support the DC Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (DC-IDDRC).

Children’s National Hospital announces a $7 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to support the DC Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (DC-IDDRC). Through this award, the DC-IDDRC will enhance the recruitment and training of investigators, generate innovation and promote transdisciplinary research to facilitate the development, implementation and dissemination of new diagnostic and therapeutic advances for the care of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The DC-IDDRC, led by Children’s National in partnership with George Washington University, Howard University and Georgetown University, is one of only 14 IDDRCs in the United States funded by NICHD. This long standing NICHD program supports researchers whose goals are to advance understanding of a variety of conditions and topics related to intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Children’s National cares for one of the largest cohorts of children with developmental disabilities in the U.S. — which uniquely positions us to lead the way in both care and research of developmental disabilities in young children,” said Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., interim chief academic officer and interim director of the Children’s National Research Institute, and principal investigator for the DC-IDDRC.

The research strategy for this period will address three key areas: neural development and neurodevelopmental disorders, fetal and neonatal brain injury and genetic disorders by leveraging the core facilities and core innovation — including the Genomics and Bioinformatics Core, Cell and Tissue Microscopy Core, Neuroimaging Core, Clinical Translational Core and Neurobehavioral Evaluation Core.

“In spite of tremendous advances in our understanding of how abnormalities in brain development cause neurodevelopmental disorders and developmental disabilities, integrated knowledge in all these areas of research is still lacking. In particular, it is still unknown how specific genetic defects and cellular abnormalities result in behavioral phenotypes,” said Gallo.

One in six children suffers from a chronic, complex neurodevelopmental disability — conditions such as intellectual disability, learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. For 20 years, the DC-IDDRC has been a home for researchers from different specialties and different institutions to discover new therapies and treatments for children with these types of neurodevelopmental disabilities.

“The DC-IDDRC promises to be a great vehicle to spawn new research and collaborative networks for D.C. area investigators,” said Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., vice provost for faculty and professor at Georgetown University. “We will be examining whether a behavioral intervention to enhance self-regulation in adolescents with Autism changes how they learn and use computational modeling to understand learning strategy and identify associated changes in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging.”

The robust relationships and spirit of cooperation built over two decades of collaboration have laid a strong groundwork for the establishment of the expansive post-doctoral training program and continuous growth of the research programs within the DC-IDDRC. Gallo continues his efforts in expanding access to these programs and building a sustainable pipeline of young scholars from diverse backgrounds. The partnership between Children’s National and Howard University continues to play a crucial role in these goals.

The DC-IDDRC continues to work toward translating research findings into novel approaches and personalized treatments for people with developmental disabilities and their caregivers. This work will be amplified when the DC-IDDRC moves into the expanded facility at the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, which houses startup incubator programs and other support for device innovation.

Premature birth may alter critical cerebellar development linked to learning and language

 Diffusion tensor imaging teases out subtle injury to cerebral and cerebellar white matter that is not evident with conventional MRI, allowing researchers to quantify brain tissue microstructure and classify white matter integrity.

Diffusion tensor imaging teases out subtle injury to cerebral and cerebellar white matter that is not evident with conventional MRI, allowing researchers to quantify brain tissue microstructure and classify white matter integrity.

Premature birth can interrupt a key period of brain development that occurs in the third trimester, which has the potential to impact a child’s long-term learning, language, and social skills. A recent case-control study published in The Journal of Pediatrics applied diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging (DTI) to zoom in on the microstructures comprising the critical cerebellar neural networks related to learning and language, and found significant differences between preterm and full-term newborns.

“The third trimester, during which many premature births occur, is typically when the developing cerebellum undergoes its most dramatic period of growth. Normally, the cerebellar white matter tracts that connect to the deep nuclei are rich in pathways where nerve fibers cross. Those connections permit information to flow from one part of the brain to another. It is possible that premature birth leads to aberrant development of these critical neural networks,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System and senior study author.

One in 10 American babies is born prematurely. The brain injury that infants born prematurely experience is associated with a range of neurodevelopmental disabilities, including some whose influence isn’t apparent until years later, when the children begin school. Nearly half of extremely preterm infants go on to experience long-term learning, social, and behavioral impairments.

While conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect many brain abnormalities in newborns, a newer technique called DTI can tease out even subtle injury to cerebral and cerebellar white matter that is not evident with conventional MRI. White matter contains axons, which are nerve fibers that transmit messages. With DTI, researchers can quantify brain tissue microstructure and describe the integrity of white matter.

The research team compared imaging from 73 premature infants born before 32 weeks gestation who weighed less than 1,500 grams with 73 healthy newborns born to mothers who delivered at full term after 37 weeks. After the newborns had been fed, swaddled, and fitted with double ear protection, the imaging was performed as they slept. Nurses monitored their heart rates and oxygen saturation. Their brain abnormalities were scored as normal, mild, moderate, or severe.

All of the full-term newborns had normal brain MRIs as did 44 (60.3 percent) of the preemies.

The preemies had significantly higher fractional anisotropy in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that processes incoming information from elsewhere in the brain, permitting coordinated movement as well as modulating learning, language, and social skills. Alterations in cerebellar microarchitecture was associated with markers for illness severe enough to require surgery – such as correcting abnormal blood flow caused by the failure of the ductus arteriosus to close after birth and to remedy a bowel disease known as necrotizing enterocolitis. The risk factors also are associated with compromised cardiorespiratory function and low Apgar score at five minutes, Limperopoulos and co-authors write. The Apgar score is a quick way to gauge, one minute after birth, how well the newborn withstood the rigors of childbirth. It is repeated at five minutes to describe how the newborn is faring outside of the womb.

“In previous studies, we and others have associated cerebellar structural injury in preterm infants with long-term motor, cognitive, and socio-affective impairments. This is one of the first studies to provide a detailed report about these unexpected alterations in cerebellar microstructural organization,” she adds. “We postulate that the combination of premature birth and early exposure of the immature developing cerebellum to the extrauterine environment results in disturbed micro-organization.”

Additional research is warranted in larger groups of patients as well as long-term follow up of this cohort of newborns to determine whether this microstructural disorganization predicts long-term social, behavioral, and learning impairments.

“A large number of these prematurely born newborns had MRI readings in the normal range. Yet, we know that these children are uniquely at risk for developing neurodevelopmental disabilities later in life. With additional study, we hope to identify interventions that could lower those risks,” Limperopoulos says.

Related resources: The Journal of Pediatrics editorial