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Dr. Anitha John, third from right, director of the Washington Adult Congenital Heart Program, hosts the eighth-annual “Adult Congenital Heart Disease in the 21st Century” conference

CME spotlight: Treating adult congenital heart disease

Dr. Anitha John, third from right, director of the Washington Adult Congenital Heart Program, hosts the eighth-annual “Adult Congenital Heart Disease in the 21st Century” conference

Dr. Anitha John, third from right, director of the Washington Adult Congenital Heart Program, hosts the eighth-annual “Adult Congenital Heart Disease in the 21st Century” conference, which takes place Oct. 4-5, 2019.

A two-day continuing medical education (CME) conference for physicians and clinicians treating patients with adult congenital heart disease (ACHD) takes place Oct. 4-5, 2019, at the Bethesda Marriott in Bethesda, Maryland.

The eighth-annual conference, “Adult Congenital Heart Disease in the 21st Century,” hosted by Children’s National Health System and MedStar Washington Hospital Center provides a comprehensive review of the evaluation, diagnosis and management of ACHD, including guidelines to help ACHD patients manage a healthy pregnancy and clinical guidance about the progression of congenital heart disease (CHD) treatment from adolescence through adulthood.

Two tracks accommodate these themes, with the first focusing on a multidisciplinary approach clinicians can use to help ACHD patients assess risks for pregnancy complications, while planning and managing a healthy pregnancy, with input from cardiologists, anesthesiologists and maternal fetal medicine specialists. The second focuses on cardiac defects, starting with anatomical cardiac lessons with 3D heart models, then moves to imaging review, examining echocardiograms and MRI’s, and ends with clinical management review.

“This conference brings the best science and the most innovative approaches to treatment with questions doctors receive in the exam room,” says Anitha John, M.D., Ph.D., the conference organizer and director of the Washington Adult Congenital Heart program at Children’s National. “We’re inviting patients to join the afternoon of the second day of the CME conference again this year to support shared knowledge of these concepts, which supports lifelong treatment and education.”

Dr. John planned this year’s conference with the November 6 ACHD board exams in mind, integrating topics that will appear on the third ACHD certification exam issued by the American Board of Internal Medicine.

At this year’s CME conference, more than a dozen faculty members, including several physicians and nurses from Children’s National, will guide lectures to help attendees meet 13 objectives, from understanding the prevalence of congenital heart disease and its complications to learning about when surgical interventions and referrals to specialists are necessary.

Attendees will review new and innovative PAH therapies, mechanical support therapies, catheter-based interventional procedures and appraise the use of pacemaker and defibrillator therapy among adults with CHD.

Patients and families attending the patient sessions, held from 12:30 to 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, October 5, have a chance to participate in three sessions that support the medical and social needs of ACHD patients. Topics range from workshops that address the neurodevelopment and psychosocial factors of living with a congenital heart defect to sessions that focus on reproductive options for patients and personalized lifestyle recommendations, including fitness and exercise guidelines.

“To support cardiovascular health throughout the lifespan, it helps to educate patients about their heart’s structure and unique needs,” notes Dr. John. “We want to spark a dialogue now and have future conversations with patients, especially while they are young.”

The American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines updated ACHD treatment recommendations in August 2018, the first time in 10 years, and many of these guidelines manifest as panel discussions and interactive lectures presented at the 2019 Adult Congenital Heart Disease in the 21st Century conference.

Attendees can receive up to 12.5 credits from the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education, the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the American Academy of PAs.

Those interested in starting their own ACHD program can attend an evening symposium, entitled “ACHD Program Building 101,” hosted by representatives from the Mid-Atlantic ACHD Regional Group. Topics in the six-session panel range from managing ACHD patients in a pediatric hospital setting to the role of clinical nurse coordinators in ACHD care.

To learn more about or to register for the conference, visit CE.MedStarHealth.org/ACHD.

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.

DNA Molecule

Decoding cellular signals linked to hypospadias

DNA Molecule

“By advancing our understanding of the genetic causes and the anatomic differences among patients, the real goal of this research is to generate knowledge that will allow us to take better care of children with hypospadias,” Daniel Casella, M.D. says.

Daniel Casella, M.D., a urologist at Children’s National, was honored with an AUA Mid-Atlantic Section William D. Steers, M.D. Award, which provides two years of dedicated research funding that he will use to better understand the genetic causes for hypospadias.

With over 7,000 new cases a year in the U.S., hypospadias is a common birth defect that occurs when the urethra, the tube that transports urine out of the body, does not form completely in males.

Dr. Casella has identified a unique subset of cells in the developing urethra that have stopped dividing but remain metabolically active and are thought to represent a novel signaling center. He likens them to doing the work of a construction foreman. “If you’re constructing a building, you need to make sure that everyone follows the blueprints.  We believe that these developmentally senescent cells are sending important signals that define how the urethra is formed,” he says.

His project also will help to standardize the characterization of hypospadias. Hypospadias is classically associated with a downward bend to the penis, a urethra that does not extend to the head of the penis and incomplete formation of the foreskin. Still, there is significant variability among patients’ anatomy and to date, no standardized method for documenting hypospadias anatomy.

“Some surgeons take measurements in the operating room, but without a standardized classification system, there is no definitive way to compare measurements among providers or standardize diagnoses from measurements that every surgeon makes,” he adds. “What one surgeon may call ‘distal’ may be called ‘midshaft’ by another.” (With distal hypospadias, the urethra opening is near the penis head; with midshaft hypospadias, the urethra opening occurs along the penis shaft.)

“By advancing our understanding of the genetic causes and the anatomic differences among patients, the real goal of this research is to generate knowledge that will allow us to take better care of children with hypospadias,” he says.

Parents worry about lingering social stigma, since some boys with hypospadias are unable to urinate while standing, and in older children the condition can be associated with difficulties having sex. Surgical correction of hypospadias traditionally is performed when children are between 6 months to 1 year old.

When reviewing treatment options with family, “discussing the surgery and postoperative care is straight forward. The hard part of our discussion is not having good answers to questions about long-term outcomes,” he says.

Dr. Casella’s study hopes to build the framework to enable that basic research to be done.

“Say we wanted to do a study to see how patients are doing 15-20 years after their surgery.  If we go to their charts now, often we can’t accurately describe their anatomy prior to surgery.  By establishing uniform measurement baselines, we can accurately track long-term outcomes since we’ll know what condition that child started with and where they ended up,” he says.

Dr. Casella’s research project will be conducted at Children’s National under the mentorship of Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., an international expert in sex and genitalia development; Dolores J. Lamb, Ph.D., HCLD, an established leader in urology based at Weill Cornell Medicine; and Marius George Linguraru, DPhil, MA, MSc, an expert in image processing and artificial intelligence.

toddler nursing

Newborns with suspected food allergies breastfed significantly longer

toddler nursing

Mothers whose newborns had suspected food allergies reported breastfeeding them significantly longer than women whose infants had no adverse reactions after food exposure, according to preliminary research led by Karen A. Robbins, M.D., and presented during the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food allergies affect 4 to 6 percent of U.S. children, making such allergies a growing public health concern. Researchers are attempting to learn more about the interplay between food allergies and what, when and how children eat to inform allergy-prevention efforts. Little is known about the association between perceived food allergies, intolerance or hypersensitivity among babies eating their first bites of solid food and how long they’re breastfed.

Dr. Robbins and colleagues analyzed data gathered through a longitudinal study led by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC from 2005 to 2007. The Infant Feeding Practices Study II tracked diet and feeding practices of about 2,000 women late in their pregnancies and followed their babies’ diets through the first year of life.

Some 2,586 breastfeeding mothers in the study completed surveys when their infants were 4, 9 and 12 months old. The women were asked whether there were problems caused by food, such as an allergic reaction, sensitivity or intolerance. The majority of these infants (84.6 percent) had no suspected allergic reaction to either food they ate on their own or to food they were exposed to via breastmilk. The mothers reported that nearly 11 percent of infants reacted to something they ate; 2.4 percent reacted to food products they were exposed to via breastmilk; and 2.4 percent reacted to both food they consumed directly or were exposed to via breastfeeding. They also found:

  • Infants with suspected food allergies after exposure to food their mothers ate were breastfed a mean of 45.8 weeks.
  • Infants with food intolerance after both exposure to food their mother consumed and food they ate themselves were breastfed a mean of 40.2 weeks.

That contrasts with infants with no concern for food reactions, who were breastfed a mean of 32 weeks.

“Breastfeeding a newborn for the first few months of life helps their developing immune system become more robust, may affect the microbiome, and could influence or prevent development of allergy later in life,” says Dr. Robbins, an allergist at Children’s National Health System and lead author of the research. “However, mothers’ perceptions of their newborns’ adverse reactions to food appears to factor into how long they breastfeed.”

One potential concern is that extended breastfeeding can impact solid food introduction practices.

“Gradually transitioning to solid food gives infants an opportunity to sample an array of foods, nibble by nibble, including food allergens like peanut and eggs. We know from previously published research that introducing high-risk babies to a food allergen like peanuts early in life appropriately primes their immune system and dramatically decreases how often these children actually develop peanut allergies,” Dr. Robbins adds. “The relationship between breastfeeding and allergy development is complex, so understanding mothers’ practices is important. We also do not know how often these early reactions result in true food allergy, compared with transient food intolerance.”

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Perceived food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance and its impact on breastfeeding practices.”

Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, 9:45-10:45 a.m. (PST)

Karen A. Robbins M.D., lead author; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., co-author; Ashley Ramos Ph.D., co-author; Daniel V. DiGiacomo, M.D., co-author; Katherine M. Balas BS, co-author; and Linda Herbert, Ph.D., director of Children’s Division of Allergy and Immunology’s psychosocial clinical program and senior author.

Breastfeeding Mom

Exclusive breastfeeding lowers odds of some schoolchildren having eczema

Breastfeeding Mom

Children exclusively breastfed for the first three months of life had significantly lower odds of having eczema at age 6 compared with peers who were not breastfed or were breastfed for less time, according to preliminary research presented during the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting.

Eczema is a chronic condition characterized by extremely itchy skin that, when scratched, becomes inflamed and covered with blisters that crack easily. While genes and the environment are implicated in this inflammatory disease, many questions remain unanswered, such as how best to prevent it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breastfed infants have reduced risks for developing many chronic conditions, including asthma and obesity.

“The evidence that being exclusively breastfed protects children from developing eczema later in life remains mixed,” says Katherine M. Balas, BS, BA, a clinical research assistant at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “Our research team is trying to help fill that data gap.”

Balas and colleagues tapped data collected in Infant Feeding Practices Study II, a longitudinal study co-led by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2005 to 2007, as well as the agencies’ 2012 follow-up examination of that study cohort. This study first tracked the diets of about 2,000 pregnant women from their third trimester and examined feeding practices through their babies’ first year of life. Their follow-up inquiry looked at the health, development and dietary patterns for 1,520 of these children at 6 years of age.

About 300 of the children had been diagnosed with eczema at some point in their lives, and 58.5 percent of the 6-year-olds had eczema at the time of the CDC/FDA Year Six Follow-Up. Children with higher socioeconomic status or a family history of food allergies had higher odds of being diagnosed with eczema.

“Children who were exclusively breastfed for three months or longer were significantly less likely (adjusted odds ratio: 0.477) to have continued eczema at age 6, compared with peers who were never breastfed or who were breastfed for less than three months,” Balas adds. “While exclusive breastfeeding may not prevent kids from getting eczema, it may protect them from experiencing extended flare-ups.”

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Exclusive breastfeeding in infancy and eczema diagnosis at 6 years of age.”

Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, 9:45 a.m. (PST)

Katherine M. Balas BS, BA, lead author; Karen A. Robbins M.D., co-author; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., co-author; Ashley Ramos Ph.D., co-author; Daniel V. DiGiacomo, M.D., co-author; and Linda Herbert, Ph.D., director of Children’s Division of Allergy and Immunology’s psychosocial clinical program and senior author.

pregnant woman holding eggs

How does diet during pregnancy impact allergies in offspring?

pregnant woman holding eggs

A small percentage of women said they consumed fewer allergens during pregnancy to stave off food allergies in their newborns, according to preliminary research Karen Robbins, M.D., presented during the American College of Asthma Allergy and Immunology 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting.

Pregnant women routinely swear off alcohol and tobacco to boost their chances of having a healthy baby. What about common food allergens like nuts and milk?

There are scant data that describe how often pregnant women deliberately stop eating a specific food item in order to prevent future food allergies in their newborns. As a first step toward addressing this data gap, a research team led by Karen Robbins, M.D., an allergist at Children’s National Health System, pored through a longitudinal study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 4,900 pregnant women completed the Infant Feeding Practices Study II prenatal questionnaire from May 2005 to June 2007. The study tracked 2,000 pregnant women from the third trimester of pregnancy and their infants through the first year of life. A small percentage of women said they had consumed fewer allergens during pregnancy to stave off food allergies in their newborns, according to a poster Dr. Robbins presented during the American College of Asthma Allergy and Immunology 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting. While their numbers were small, most of these women reported giving up major allergens like nuts, milk or eggs during pregnancy, including:

  • 144 (2.9 percent) reported restricting their diet in some way to prevent future food allergies in their offspring
  • 84 women (1.7 percent) ate fewer nuts
  • 15 women (.3 percent) ate fewer eggs and
  • 2 women (.04 percent) ate/drank consumed less dairy/milk.

“At the time the survey was conducted, few pregnant women in this large data set said they gave up certain foods with the express aim of avoiding a food allergy in their babies,” Dr. Robbins says. “However, mothers who had an older child with a food allergy or who had food allergies themselves had significantly higher odds of trying this food avoidance strategy.”

Despite the diet changes, infants born to these expectant mothers were twice as likely to experience problems with food at age 4 months – though not at age 9 months or 12 months. And these infants were no more likely to be diagnosed with a food allergy.

According to the FDA, millions of Americans suffer a food allergy each year. Reactions can range from mild to life-threatening and can begin soon after eating a problematic food item or an ingredient from that food. Among the most common allergenic foods are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

“We really need to know more about how often targeted food avoidance occurs among U.S. pregnant women who have a family history of food allergies,” Dr. Robbins adds. “We hope to learn what factors into these women’s decision-making as well as why many of them settled on food avoidance as a potential strategy to try to prevent food allergy in their infants.”

American College of Asthma Allergy and Immunology 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting presentation

  • “Prenatal food allergen avoidance practices for food allergy prevention.”

Karen Robbins M.D., lead author; Ashley Ramos Ph.D., co-author; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., co-author; Kate Balas BS, co-author; and Linda Herbert, Ph.D., director of Children’s Division of Allergy and Immunology’s psychosocial clinical program, and senior author.

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.

Every day fetuses remain in utero critical to preserving normal brain development

preemieimage

If it does not jeopardize the health of the pregnant mother or her fetus, pregnancies should be carried as close to full term as possible to avoid vulnerable preemies experiencing a delay in brain development, study results published October 28 in Pediatrics indicate.

Some 15 million infants around the world – and 1 in 10 American babies – are born prematurely. While researchers have known that preemies’ brain growth is disturbed when compared with infants born at full term, it remained unclear when preemies’ brain development begins to veer off course and how that impairment evolves over time, says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., Director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System and senior study author.

A look at the research

In order to shine a spotlight on this critical phase of fetal brain development, Limperopoulos and colleagues studied 75 preterm infants born prior to the 32th gestational week who weighed less than 1,500 grams who had no evidence of structural brain injury. These preemies were matched with 130 fetuses between 27 to 39 weeks gestational age.

The healthy fetal counterparts are part of a growing database that the Children’s National Developing Brain Research Laboratory has assembled. The research lab uses three-dimensional magnetic resonance imaging to carefully record week-by-week development of the normal in utero fetal brains as well as week-by-week characterizations of specific regions of the fetal brain.

The availability of time-lapsed images of normally developing brains offers a chance to reframe research questions in order to identify approaches to prevent injuries to the fetal brain, Limperopoulos says.

“Up until now, we have been focused on examining what is it about being born too early? What is it about those first few hours of life that leaves preemies more vulnerable to brain injury?” she says. “What is really unique about these study results is for the very first time we have an opportunity to better understand the ways in which we care for preemies throughout their hospitalization that optimize brain development and place more emphasis those activities.”

When the research team compared third-trimester brain volumes, preemies showed lower volumes in the cerebrum, cerebellum, brainstem, and intracranial cavity. The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain and controls speech, thoughts, emotions, learning, as well as muscle function. The cerebellum plays a role in learning and social-behavioral functions as well as complex motor functions; it also controls the balance needed to stand up and to walk. The brainstem is like a router, ferrying information between the brain, the cerebellum, and the spinal cord.

“What this study shows us is that every day and every week of in utero development is critical. If at all possible, we need to keep fetuses in utero to protect them from the hazards that can occur in the extra uterine environment,” she says.