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T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation

Maternal mental health alters structure and biochemistry of developing fetal brain

Even when pregnant women have uncomplicated pregnancies and high socioeconomic status, when they experience elevated anxiety, stress or depression these prenatal stressors can alter the structure of the developing fetal brain and disrupt its biochemistry, according to Children’s National Hospital research published online Jan. 29, 2020, in JAMA Network Open.

The Children’s National research findings “have enormous scientific, clinical and public health implications,” Charles A. Nelson III, Ph.D.,  Boston Children’s Hospital, writes in a companion editorial.

“Previously we found that 65% of pregnant women who received a diagnosis of fetal congenital heart disease had elevated levels of stress. It’s concerning but not surprising that pregnant women who wonder if their baby will need open heart surgery would feel stress,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “In this latest study, we ran the same panel of questionnaires and were surprised to find a high proportion of otherwise healthy pregnant women whose unborn babies are doing well also report high levels of stress.”

Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems during pregnancy. To learn more about the implications for the developing fetal brain, the Children’s National research team recruited 119 healthy volunteers with low-risk pregnancies from obstetric clinics in Washington, D.C., from Jan. 1, 2016, to April 17, 2019. The women’s mean age was 34.4 years old. All were high school graduates, 83% were college graduates, and 84% reported professional employment.

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation.

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation. Segmentation results of total brain (orange), cortical gray matter (green), white matter (blue), deep gray matter (brown), brainstem (yellow), cerebellum (light blue), left hippocampus (purple) and right hippocampus (red) on a 3-Dimensional reconstructed T2-weighted MR image of a fetus at 26.4 gestational weeks. The hippocampus plays a central role in memory and behavioral inhibition and contains high concentrations of corticosteroid receptors and, thus, this brain region is sensitive to stress. Credit: JAMA Network Open.

The team performed 193 fetal brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sessions between 24-40 weeks gestation and measured the volume of the total fetal brain as well as the cortical gray matter, white matter, deep gray matter, cerebellum, brainstem and hippocampus volumes. On the same day as their MRI visit, the pregnant women completed validated questionnaires to measure maternal stress, anxiety and depression, answering questions such as “how do you feel right now,” “how do you generally feel” as well as the degree of stressful feelings they experienced the month prior.

Of the pregnant women in the study:

  • 27% tested positive for stress
  • 26% tested positive for anxiety
  • 11% tested positive for depression
  • Maternal anxiety and stress were associated with increased fetal cortical gyrification
  • Elevated maternal depression was associated with decreased creatine and choline levels in the fetal brain
  • Maternal stress scores decreased with increasing gestational age, while anxiety and depression did not

“We report for the first time that maternal psychological distress may be associated with increased fetal local gyrification index in the frontal and temporal lobes,” says Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research associate working with Limperopoulos at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “We also found an association with left fetal hippocampal volume, with maternal psychological distress selectively stunting the left hippocampal volumetric growth more than the right. And elevated maternal depression was associated with decreased creatine and choline levels in the fetal brain,” Wu adds.

Late in pregnancy – at the time these women were recruited into the cohort study – the fetal brain grows exponentially and key metabolite levels also rise. Creatine facilitates recycling of adenosine triphosphate, the cell’s energy currency. Typically, levels of this metabolite rise, denoting rapid changes and higher cellular maturation; creatine also is known to support cognitive function. Choline levels also typically rise, marking cell membrane turnover as new cells are generated and support memory, mental focus and concentration.

“These women were healthy, and of high socioeconomic status and educational level, leading us to conclude that the prevalence of prenatal maternal psychological distress may be underestimated,” Limperopoulos adds. “While stress is an everyday reality for most of us, this is different because elevated stress during pregnancy can alter fetal brain programming. Our findings underscore the critical need to universally screen all pregnant women for prenatal psychological distress, even young mothers whose pregnancies wouldn’t otherwise raise red flags.”

In addition to Limperopoulos and Wu, Children’s National study co-authors include Yuan-Chiao Lu, Ph.D., research associate; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., biostatistician; Subechhya Pradhan, Ph.D., research faculty; Kushal Kapse, MS, staff engineer; Li Zhao, Ph.D., research faculty; Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., director of the neuroradiology program; and Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director, Fetal Medicine Institute. Research coordinators Catherine Lopez, MS, Kathryn Lee Bannantine, BSN, and Jessica Lynn Quistorff, MPH, assisted with subject recruitment.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant No. RO1 HL116585-01 and the Thrasher Research Fund under Early Career award No. 14764.

Journal Reference:
Yao Wu, Yuan-Chiao Lu, Marni Jacobs, Subechhya Pradhan, Kushal Kapse, Li Zhao, Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, Gilbert Vezina, Adré J. du Plessis, Catherine Limperopoulos. “Association of prenatal maternal psychological distress with fetal brain growth, metabolism and cortical maturation,” JAMA Network Open, 3(1): e1919940, 2020

Catherine Limperopoulos

Stressful pregnancies can leave fingerprint on fetal brain

Catherine Limperopoulos

“We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major fetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s corresponding author.

When a diagnosis of fetal congenital heart disease causes pregnant moms to test positive for stress, anxiety and depression, powerful imaging can detect impaired development in key fetal brain regions, according to Children’s National Hospital research published online Jan. 13, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics.

While additional research is needed, the Children’s National study authors say their unprecedented findings underscore the need for universal screening for psychological distress as a routine part of prenatal care and taking other steps to support stressed-out pregnant women and safeguard their newborns’ developing brains.

“We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major fetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s corresponding author. “Equally concerning is how prevalent psychological distress is among pregnant women generally. We report for the first time that this challenging prenatal environment impairs regions of the fetal brain that play a major role in learning, memory, coordination, and social and behavioral development, making it all the more important for us to identify these women early during pregnancy to intervene,” Limperopoulos adds.

Congenital heart disease (CHD), structural problems with the heart, is the most common birth defect. Still, it remains unclear how exposure to maternal stress impacts brain development in fetuses with CHD.

The multidisciplinary study team enrolled 48 women whose unborn fetuses had been diagnosed with CHD and 92 healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies. Using validated screening tools, they found:

  • 65% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for stress
  • 27% of women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for stress
  • 44% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for anxiety
  • 26% of women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for anxiety
  • 29% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for depression and
  • 9% women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for depression

All told, they performed 223 fetal magnetic resonance imaging sessions for these 140 fetuses between 21 and 40 weeks of gestation. They measured brain volume in cubic centimeters for the total brain as well as volumetric measurements for key regions such as the cerebrum, cerebellum, brainstem, and left and right hippocampus.

Maternal stress and anxiety in the second trimester were associated with smaller left hippocampi and smaller cerebellums only in pregnancies affected by fetal CHD. What’s more, specific regions — the hippocampus head and body and the left cerebellar lobe – were more susceptible to stunted growth. The hippocampus is key to memory and learning, while the cerebellum controls motor coordination and plays a role in social and behavioral development.

The hippocampus is a brain structure that is known to be very sensitive to stress. The timing of the CHD diagnosis may have occurred at a particularly vulnerable time for the developing fetal cerebellum, which grows faster than any other brain structure in the second half of gestation, particularly in the third trimester.

“None of these women had been screened for prenatal depression or anxiety. None of them were taking medications. And none of them had received mental health interventions. In the group of women contending with fetal CHD, 81% had attended college and 75% had professional educations, so this does not appear to be an issue of insufficient resources,” Limperopoulos adds. “It’s critical that we routinely to do these screenings and provide pregnant women with access to interventions to lower their stress levels. Working with our community partners, Children’s National is doing just that to help reduce toxic prenatal stress for both the health of the mother and for the future newborns. We hope this becomes standard practice elsewhere.”

Adds Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research associate working with Limperopoulos at Children’s National and the study’s lead author: “Our next goal is exploring effective prenatal cognitive behavioral interventions to reduce psychological distress felt by pregnant women and improve neurodevelopment in babies with CHD.”

In addition to Limperopoulos and Wu , Children’s National study co-authors include Kushal Kapse, MS, staff engineer; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., biostatistician; Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Mary T. Donofrio, M.D., director, Fetal Heart Program; Anita Krishnan, M.D., associate director, echocardiography; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., director, Neuroradiology Program; David Wessel, M.D., Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer; and Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director, Fetal Medicine Institute. Jessica Lynn Quistorff, MPH, Catherine Lopez, MS, and Kathryn Lee Bannantine, BSN, assisted with subject recruitment and study coordination.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant No. R01 HL116585-01 and the Thrasher Research Fund under Early Career award No. 14764.

sleeping baby

False negatives: Delayed Zika effects in babies who appeared normal at birth

sleeping baby

Colombian infants exposed to Zika virus in the womb showed neurodevelopmental delays as toddlers, despite having “normal” brain imaging and head circumference at birth, a finding that underscores the importance of long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up for Zika-exposed infants.

Colombian infants exposed to Zika virus in the womb showed neurodevelopmental delays as toddlers, despite having “normal” brain imaging and head circumference at birth, a finding that underscores the importance of long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up for Zika-exposed infants, according to a cohort study published online Jan. 6, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics.

“These infants had no evidence of Zika deficits or microcephaly at birth. Neurodevelopmental deficits, including declines in mobility and social cognition, emerged in their first year of life even as their head circumference remained normal,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D. Ph.D., a fetal/neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Hospital and the study’s first author. “About one-third of these newborns who underwent postnatal head ultrasound had nonspecific imaging results, which we believe are the first published results finding a link between subtle brain injuries and impaired neuromotor development in Zika-exposed children.”

The multi-institutional research group led by Children’s National enrolled pregnant women in Atlántico Department, which hugs the Caribbean coast of Colombia, who had been exposed to Zika, and performed a series of fetal magnetic resonance images (MRI) and ultrasounds as their pregnancies progressed.

Even though their mothers had laboratory-confirmed Zika infections, 77 out of 82 of their offspring were born with no sign of congenital Zika syndrome, a constellation of birth defects that includes severe brain abnormalities, eye problems and congenital contractures, and 70 underwent additional testing of neurodevelopment during infancy. These apparently normal newborns were born between Aug. 1, 2016, and Nov. 30, 2017, at the height of the Zika epidemic, and had normal head circumference.

When they were 4 to 8 months or 9 to 18 months of age, the infants’ neurodevelopment was evaluated using two validated tools, the Warner Initial Developmental Evaluation of Adaptive and Functional Skills (a 50-item test of such skills as self-care, mobility, communication and social cognition) and the Alberta Infant Motor Scale (a motor examination of infants in prone, supine, sitting and standing positions). Some infants were assessed during each time point.

Women participating in the study were highly motivated, with 91% following up with appointments, even if it meant traveling hours by bus. In addition to Children’s National faculty traveling to Colombia to train staff how to administer the screening instruments, videotaped assessments, MRIs and ultrasounds were read, analyzed and scored at Children’s National. According to the study team, the U.S. scoring of Alberta Infant Motor Scale tests administered in Colombia is also unprecedented for a research study and offers the potential of remote scoring of infants’ motor skill maturity in regions of the world where pediatric specialists, like child neurologists, are lacking.

“Normally, neurodevelopment in infants and toddlers continues for years, building a sturdy neural network that they later use to carry out complex neurologic and cognitive functions as children enter school,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “Our findings underscore the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that all infants exposed to Zika in the womb undergo long-term follow-up, providing an opportunity to intervene earlier.”

An accompanying editorial by CDC staffers concurs, saying the study reported “intriguing data” that add “to the growing evidence of the need for long-term follow-up for all children with Zika virus exposure in utero to ensure they receive the recommended clinical evaluations even when no structural defects are identified at birth.”

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Margarita Arroyave-Wessel, MPH, Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D., chief of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, JiJi Jiang, MS, Stephanie Russo, BS, Robert McCarter, ScD, research section head, design and biostatistics,  Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine, and co-Senior Author, Roberta L. DeBiasi, MD, MS, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, all of Children’s National; Colleen Peyton, PT, DPT, of Northwestern University; Yamil Fourzali, M.D., of Sabbag Radiologos, Barranquilla, Colombia; Michael E. Msall, M.D., of University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital; and co-Senior Author, Carlos Cure, M.D., BIOMELab, Barranquilla, Colombia.

Funding for the research described in this post was provided by the Thrasher Research Fund, the National Institutes of Health under award Nos. UL1TR001876 and KL2TR001877, and the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disorders Training Program under grant HRSA/MCHB T73 MC11047.

Autonomic nervous system appears to function well regardless of mode of childbirth

Late in pregnancy, the human body carefully prepares fetuses for the rigors of life outside the protection of the womb. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, ramp up and spike during labor. Catecholamines, another stress hormone, also rise at birth, helping to kick start the necessary functions that the baby will need to regulate breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and energy metabolism levels at delivery. Oxytocin surges, promoting contractions for the mother during labor and stimulating milk production after the infant is born.

These processes also can play a role in preparing the fetal brain during the transition to life outside the womb by readying the autonomic nervous system and adapting its cerebral connections. The autonomic nervous system acts like the body’s autopilot, taking in information it needs to ensure that internal organs run steadily without willful action, such as ensuring the heart beats and eyelids blink at steady intervals. Its yin, the sympathetic division, stimulates body processes while its yang, the parasympathetic division, inhibits them.

Infants born preterm have reduced autonomic function compared with their full-term peers and also face possible serious neurodevelopmental impairment later in life. But is there a difference in autonomic nervous system function for full-term babies after undergoing labor compared with infants delivered via cesarean section (C-section)?

A team from the Children’s National Inova Collaborative Research Program (CNICA) – a research collaboration between Children’s National in Washington, D.C., and Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Virginia – set out to answer that question in a paper published online July 30, 2019, in Scientific Reports.

They enrolled newborns who had experienced normal, full-term pregnancies and recorded their brain function and heart performance when they were about 2 days old. Infants whose conditions were fragile enough to require observation in the neonatal intensive care unit were excluded from the study. Of 167 infants recruited for the prospective cohort study, 118 newborns had sufficiently robust data to include them in the research.  Of these newborns:

  • 62 (52.5%) were born by vaginal delivery
  • 22 (18.6%) started out with vaginal delivery but ultimately switched to C-section based on failure to progress, failed labor induction or fetal intolerance to labor
  • And 34 (28.8%) were born by elective C-section.

The CNICA research team swaddled infants for comfort and slipped electrode nets over their tiny heads to simultaneously measure heart rate variability and electrocortical function through non-invasive techniques. The team hypothesized that infants who had been exposed to labor would have enhanced autonomic tone and higher cortical electroencephalogram (EEG) power than babies born via C-section.

“In a low-risk group of babies born full-term, the autonomic nervous system and cortical systems appear to function well regardless of whether infants were exposed to labor prior to birth,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetalneonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National and the study’s lead author.

However, infants born by C-section following a period of labor had significantly increased accelerations in their heart rates. And the infants born by C-section during labor had significantly lower relative gamma frequency EEG at 25.2 hours old compared with the other two groups studied.

“Together these findings point to a possible increased stress response and arousal difference in infants who started with vaginal delivery and finished delivery with C-section,” Dr. Mulkey says. “There is so little published research about the neurologic impacts of the mode of delivery, so our work helps to provide a normal reference point for future studies looking at high-risk infants, including babies born preterm.”

Because the research team saw little differences in autonomic tone or other EEG frequencies when the infants were 1 day old, future research will explore these measures at different points in the newborns’ early life as well as the role of the sleep-wake cycle on heart rate variability.

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Srinivas Kota, Ph.D., Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., Tareq Al-Shargabi, MSc, Christopher B. Swisher, BS, Laura Hitchings, BScM, Stephanie Russo, BS, Nicole Herrera, MPH, Robert McCarter, ScD, and Senior Author Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, all of Children’s National; and Augustine Eze Jr., MS, G. Larry Maxwell, M.D., and Robin Baker, M.D., all of Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences under award numbers UL1TR001876 and KL2TR001877.