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doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Novel approach to detect fetal growth restriction

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Morphometric and textural analyses of magnetic resonance imaging can point out subtle architectural deviations associated with fetal growth restriction during the second half of pregnancy, a first-time finding that has the promise to lead to earlier intervention.

Morphometric and textural analyses of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can point out subtle architectural deviations that are associated with fetal growth restriction (FGR) during the second half of pregnancy. The first-time finding hints at the potential to spot otherwise hidden placental woes earlier and intervene in a more timely fashion, a research team led by Children’s National Hospital faculty reports in Pediatric Research.

“We found reduced placental size, as expected, but also determined that the textural metrics are accelerated in FGR when factoring in gestational age, suggesting premature placental aging in FGR,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “While morphometric and textural features can discriminate placental differences between FGR cases with and without Doppler abnormalities, the pattern of affected features differs between these sub-groups. Of note, placental insufficiency with abnormal Doppler findings have significant differences in the signal-intensity metrics, perhaps related to differences of water content within the placenta.”

The placenta, an organ shared by the pregnant woman and the developing fetus, delivers oxygen and nutrients to the developing fetus and ferries away waste products. Placental insufficiency is characterized by a placenta that develops poorly or is damaged, impairing blood flow, and can result in still birth or death shortly after birth. Surviving infants may be born preterm or suffer early brain injury; later in life, they may experience cardiovascular, metabolic or neuropsychiatric problems.

Because there are no available tools to help clinicians identify small but critical changes in placental architecture during pregnancy, placental insufficiency often is found after some damage is already done. Typically, it is discovered when FGR is diagnosed, when a fetus weighs less than 9 of 10 fetuses of the same gestational age.

“There is a growing appreciation for the prenatal origin of some neuropsychiatric disorders that manifest years to decades later. Those nine months of gestation very much define the breath of who we later become as adults,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “By identifying better biomarkers of fetal distress at an earlier stage in pregnancy and refining our imaging toolkit to detect them, we set the stage to be able to intervene earlier and improve children’s overall outcomes.”

The research team studied 32 healthy pregnancies and compared them with 34 pregnancies complicated by FGR. These women underwent up to two MRIs between 20 weeks to 40 weeks gestation. They also had abdominal circumference, fetal head circumference and fetal femur length measured as well as fetal weight estimated.

In pregnancies complicated by FGR, placentas were smaller, thinner and shorter than uncomplicated pregnancies and had decreased placental volume. Ten of 13 textural and morphometric features that differed between the two groups were associated with absolute birth weight.

“Interestingly, when FGR is diagnosed in the second trimester, placental volume, elongation and thickness are significantly reduced compared with healthy pregnancies, whereas the late-onset of FGR only affects placental volume,” Limperopoulos adds. “We believe with early-onset FGR there is a more significant reduction in the developing placental units that is detected by gross measures of size and shape. By the third trimester, the overall shape of the placenta seems to have been well defined so that primarily volume is affected in late-onset FGR.”

In addition to Dr. Andescavage and Limperopoulos, study co-authors include Sonia Dahdouh, Sayali Yewale, Dorothy Bulas, M.D., chief of the Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, and Biostatistician, Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., MPH, all of Children’s National; Sara Iqbal, of MedStar Washington Hospital Center; and Ahmet Baschat, of Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award number 1U54HD090257, R01-HL116585, UL1TR000075 and KL2TR000076, and the Clinical-Translational Science Institute-Children’s National.

allopregnanolone molecule

Autism spectrum disorder risk linked to insufficient placental steroid

allopregnanolone molecule

A study led by Children’s National Hospital and presented during Neuroscience 2019 finds that loss of allopregnanolone, a key hormone supplied by the placenta, leads to long-term structural alterations of the cerebellum – a brain region essential for smooth motor coordination, balance and social cognition – and increases the risk of developing autism.

An experimental model study suggests that allopregnanolone, one of many hormones produced by the placenta during pregnancy, is so essential to normal fetal brain development that when provision of that hormone decreases – as occurs with premature birth – offspring are more likely to develop autism-like behaviors, a Children’s National Hospital research team reports at the Neuroscience 2019 annual meeting.

“To our knowledge, no other research team has studied how placental allopregnanolone (ALLO) contributes to brain development and long-term behaviors,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead author. “Our study finds that targeted loss of ALLO in the womb leads to long-term structural alterations of the cerebellum – a brain region that is essential for motor coordination, balance and social cognition ­– and increases the risk of developing autism,” Vacher says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 infants is born preterm, before 37 weeks gestation; and 1 in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder.

In addition to presenting the abstract, on Monday, Oct. 21, Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., the abstract’s senior author, will discuss the research with reporters during a Neuroscience 2019 news conference. This Children’s National abstract is among 14,000 abstracts submitted for the meeting, the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

ALLO production by the placenta rises in the second trimester of pregnancy, and levels of the neurosteroid peak as fetuses approach full term.

To investigate what happens when ALLO supplies are disrupted, a research team led by Children’s National created a novel transgenic preclinical model in which they deleted a gene essential in ALLO synthesis. When production of ALLO in the placentas of these experimental models declines, offspring had permanent neurodevelopmental changes in a sex- and region-specific manner.

“From a structural perspective, the most pronounced cerebellar abnormalities appeared in the cerebellum’s white matter,” Vacher adds. “We found increased thickness of the myelin, a lipid-rich insulating layer that protects nerve fibers. From a behavioral perspective, male offspring whose ALLO supply was abruptly reduced exhibited increased repetitive behavior and sociability deficits – two hallmarks in humans of autism spectrum disorder.”

On a positive note, providing a single ALLO injection during pregnancy was enough to avert both the cerebellar abnormalities and the aberrant social behaviors.

The research team is now launching a new area of research focus they call “neuroplacentology” to better understand the role of placenta function on fetal and newborn brain development.

“Our team’s data provide exciting new evidence that underscores the importance of placental hormones on shaping and programming the developing fetal brain,” Vacher notes.

  • Neuroscience 2019 presentation
    Sunday, Oct. 20, 9:30 a.m. (CDT)
    “Preterm ASD risk linked to cerebellar white matter changes”
    Claire-Marie Vacher, lead author; Sonia Sebaoui, co-author; Helene Lacaille, co-author; Jackie Salzbank, co-author; Jiaqi O’Reilly, co-author; Diana Bakalar, co-author; Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Anna Penn, M.D., clinical neonatologist and developmental neuroscientist and senior author.
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.

Nickie Andescavage

To understand the preterm brain, start with the fetal brain

Nickie Andescavage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Limperopoulos

A closer look at the placenta to predict FGR

Catherine Limperopoulos

Using three-dimensional magnetic resonance imaging, a Children’s National research team that included Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., characterized the shape, volume, morphometry and texture of placentas during pregnancy and, using a novel framework, predicted with high accuracy which pregnancies would be complicated by fetal growth restriction.

Early in development, cells from the fertilized egg form the placenta, a temporary organ that serves as an interface between the mother and her growing offspring. When things go right, as occurs in the vast majority of pregnancies, the placenta properly delivers nutrients from the mother’s diet and oxygen from the air she breathes to the developing fetus while siphoning away its waste products. This organ also plays important immune-modulating and endocrine roles.

However, in a number of pregnancies, the placenta does not do an adequate job. Unable to effectively serve the fetus, a variety of adverse conditions can develop, including preeclampsia, fetal growth restriction (FGR), preterm birth and even fetal death.

Despite the key role that the placenta plays in fetal health, researchers have few non-invasive ways to assess how well it works during pregnancy. In fact, placental disease might not be suspected until very late.

In a new study, a team of Children’s National Health System research scientists is beginning to provide insights into the poorly understood placenta.

Using three-dimensional (3D) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the research team characterized the shape, volume, morphometry and texture of placentas during pregnancy and, using a novel framework, predicted with high accuracy which pregnancies would be complicated by FGR.

“When the placenta fails to carry out its essential duties, both the health of the mother and fetus can suffer and, in extreme cases, the fetus can die. Because there are few non-invasive tools that reliably assess the health of the placenta during pregnancy, unfortunately, placental disease may not be discovered until too late – after impaired fetal growth already has occurred,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., co-director of research in the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National Health System and senior author of the study published online July 22 in Journal of Magnetic Resonance Imaging. “Identifying early biomarkers of placental disease that may impair fetal growth and well-being open up brand-new opportunities to intervene to protect vulnerable fetuses.”

The Children’s research team acquired 124 fetal scans from 80 pregnancies beginning at the 18th gestational week and continuing through the 39th gestational week. Forty-six women had normal pregnancies and healthy fetuses while 34 women’s pregnancies were complicated by FGR, defined by estimated fetal weight that fell below the 10th percentile for gestational age. The placenta was described by a combination of shape and textural features. Its shape was characterized by three distinct 3D features: Volume, thickness and elongation. Its texture was evaluated by three different sets of textural features computed on the entire placenta.

“The proposed machine learning-based framework distinguished healthy pregnancies from FGR pregnancies with 86 percent accuracy and 87 percent specificity. And it estimated the birth weight in both healthy and high-risk fetuses throughout the second half of gestation reasonably well,” says the paper’s lead author, Sonia Dahdouh, Ph.D., a research fellow in Children’s Developing Brain Research Laboratory.

“We are helping to pioneer a very new frontier in fetal medicine,” Limperopoulos adds. “Other studies have developed prediction tools based on fetal brain features in utero. To our knowledge, this would be the first proposed framework for semi-automated diagnosis of FGR and estimation of birth weight using structural MRI images of the placental architecture in vivo. This has the potential to address a sizable clinical gap since we lack methods that are both sufficiently sensitive and specific to reliably detect FGR in utero.”

The research team writes that its findings underscore the importance of future studies on a larger group of patients to expand knowledge about underlying placenta mechanisms responsible for disturbed fetal growth, as well as to more completely characterize other potential predictors of fetal/placental development in high-risk pregnancies, such as genetics, physiology and nutrition.

Spectral data shine light on placenta

preemie baby

A research project led by Subechhya Pradhan, Ph.D., aims to shed light on metabolism of the placenta, a poorly understood organ, and characterize early biomarkers of fetal congenital heart disease.

The placenta serves as an essential intermediary between a pregnant mother and her developing fetus, transporting in life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients, ferrying out waste and serving as interim lungs, kidneys and liver as those vital organs develop in utero.

While the placenta plays a vital role in supporting normal pregnancies, it remains largely a black box to science. A research project led by Subechhya Pradhan, Ph.D., and partially funded by a Clinical and Translational Science Institute Research Award aims to shed light on placenta metabolism and characterize possible early biomarkers of impaired placental function in fetal congenital heart disease (CHD), the most common type of birth defect.

“There is a huge information void,” says Pradhan, a research faculty member of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System. “Right now, we do not have very much information about placenta metabolism in vivo. This would be one of the first steps to understand what is actually going on in the placenta at a biochemical level as pregnancies progress.”

The project Pradhan leads will look at the placentas of 30 women in the second and third trimesters of healthy, uncomplicated pregnancies and will compare them with placentas of 30 pregnant women whose fetuses have been diagnosed with CHD. As volunteers for a different study, the women are already undergoing magnetic resonance imaging, which takes detailed images of the placenta’s structure and architecture. The magnetic resonance spectroscopy scans that Pradhan will review show the unique chemical fingerprints of key metabolites: Choline, lipids and lactate.

Choline, a nutrient the body needs to preserve cellular structural integrity, is a marker of cell membrane turnover. Fetuses with CHD have higher concentrations of lactate in the brain, a telltale sign of a shortage of oxygen. Pradhan’s working hypothesis is that there may be differing lipid profiles and lactate levels in the placenta in pregnancies complicated by CHD.  The research team will extract those metabolite concentrations from the spectral scans to describe how they evolve in both groups of pregnant women.

“While babies born with CHD can undergo surgery as early as the first few days (or sometimes hours) of life to correct their hearts, unfortunately, we still see a high prevalence of neurodevelopmental impairments in infants with CHD. This suggests that neurological dysfunctional may have its origin in fetal life,” Pradhan says.

Having an earlier idea of which fetuses with CHD are most vulnerable has the potential to pinpoint which pregnancies need more oversight and earlier intervention.

Placenta spectral data traditionally have been difficult to acquire because the pregnant mother moves as does the fetus, she adds. During the three-minute scans, the research team will try to limit excess movement using a technique called respiratory gating, which tells the machine to synchronize image acquisition so it occurs in rhythm with the women’s breathing.