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Robin Steinhorn in the NICU

Coming together as a team for the good of the baby

Robin Steinhorn in the NICU

Children’s National has a new program to care for children who have severe bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a serious complication of preterm birth.

Around the 1-year-old’s crib is a tight circle of smiling adults, and at the foot of his bed is a menagerie of plush animals, each a different color and texture and shape to spark his curiosity and sharpen his intellect.

Gone are the days a newborn with extremely complex medical needs like Elijah would transfer from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to the pediatric intensive care unit and transition through a couple of other hospital units by the time he was discharged. Gone are the days when he’d see a variety of new physician faces at every stop. And gone are the days he’d be confined to his room, divorced from the sights and sounds and scents of the outside world, stimulation that helps little baby’s neural networks grow stronger.

Children’s National has a new program designed to meet the unique needs of children like Elijah who have severe bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), a common complication of preterm birth.

“It’s more forward-thinking – and I mean thinking for the future of each individual baby, and it’s allowing the baby to have one team and one location to take advantage of a deep knowledge of and relationship with that baby and family,” says Robin Steinhorn, M.D. Dr. Steinhorn is senior vice president of the Center for Hospital-Based Specialties and one of Children’s multidisciplinary team members who visited Elijah’s bed twice weekly during his lengthy hospitalization and who continues to see him regularly during outpatient visits.

“The pulmonologist, the neonatologist, the respiratory therapist, the physical therapist, the dietitian, the cardiologist – we all come as a team to work together for the good of the baby,” Dr. Steinhorn adds. “We stick with these babies through thick and thin. We will stick with that baby with this team and this location until they are ready to go home – and beyond.”

BPD, a serious lung condition, mostly affects extremely low birthweight preterm babies whose lungs were designed to continue developing inside the womb until the pregnancy reaches full term. Often born months before their due dates, these extremely vulnerable newborns have immature organs, including the lungs, which are not ready for the task of breathing air. Children’s program targets infants who experience respiratory failure from BPD. The respiratory support required for these infants ranges from oxygen delivered through a nasal cannula to mechanical ventilators.

Robin Steinhorn and Colleague

“It’s more forward-thinking – and I mean thinking for the future of each individual baby, and it’s allowing the baby to have one team and one location to take advantage of a deep knowledge of and relationship with that baby and family,” says Robin Steinhorn, M.D.

About 1 percent of all preterm births are extremely low birthweight, or less than 1,500 grams. Within that group, up to 40 percent will develop BPD. While they represent a small percentage of overall births, these very sick babies need comprehensive, focused care for the first few years of their lives. And some infants with severe BPD also have pulmonary hypertension which, at Children’s National, is co-managed by cardiology and pulmonary specialists.

Children’s BPD team not only focuses on the child’s survival and medical care, they focus on the neurodevelopmental and social care that a baby needs to thrive. From enhanced nutrition to occupational and physical therapy to a regular sleep cycle, the goal is to help these babies achieve their full potential.

“These babies are at tremendous risk for long-term developmental issues. Everything we do is geared to alleviate that,” adds John T. Berger III, M.D., director of Children’s Pulmonary Hypertension Program.

“Our NICU care is more focused, comprehensive and consistent,” agrees Mariam Said, M.D., a neonatologist on the team. “We’re also optimizing the timing of care and diagnostic testing that will directly impact health outcomes.”

Leaving no detail overlooked, the team also ensures that infants have age-appropriate developmental stimuli, like toys, and push for early mobility by getting children up and out of bed and into a chair or riding in a wagon.

“The standard approach is to keep the baby in a room with limited physical or occupational therapy and a lack of appropriate stimulation,” says Geovanny Perez, M.D., a pulmonologist on the team. “A normal baby interacts with their environment inside the home and outside the home. We aim to mimic that within the hospital environment.”

Dr. Steinhorn, who had long dreamed of creating this comprehensive team care approach adds that “it’s been so gratifying to see it adopted and embraced so quickly by Children’s NICU caregivers.”

Dr. Anna Penn uses a microscope

New model mimics persistent interneuron loss seen in prematurity

Dr. Anna Penn uses a microscope

Children’s research-clinicians created a novel preclinical model that mimics the persistent interneuron loss seen in preterm human infants, identifying interneuron subtypes that could become future therapeutic targets to prevent or lessen neurodevelopmental risks.

Research-clinicians at Children’s National Health System have created a novel preclinical model that mimics the persistent interneuron loss seen in preterm human infants, identifying interneuron subtypes that could become future therapeutic targets to prevent or lessen neurodevelopmental risks, the team reports Jan. 31, 2019, in eNeuro. The open access journal for Society for Neuroscience recognized the team’s paper as its “featured” article.

In the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of infants born preterm, there are decreased somatostatin and calbindin interneurons seen in upper cortical layers in infants who survived for a few months after preterm birth. This neuronal damage was mimicked in an experimental model of preterm brain injury in the PFC, but only when the newborn experimental models had first experienced a combination of prenatal maternal immune activation and postnatal chronic sublethal hypoxia. Neither neuronal insult on its own produced the pattern of interneuron loss in the upper cortical layers observed in humans, the research team finds.

“These combined insults lead to long-term neurobehavioral deficits that mimic what we see in human infants who are born extremely preterm,” says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist in the Division of Neonatology and the Fetal Medicine Institute and a developmental neuroscientist at Children’s National Health System, and senior study author. “Future success in preventing neuronal damage in newborns relies on having accurate experimental models of preterm brain injury and well-defined outcome measures that can be examined in young infants and experimental models of the same developmental stage.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1 in 10 infants is born preterm, before the 37th week of pregnancy. Many of these preterm births result from infection or inflammation in utero. After delivery, many infants experience other health challenges, like respiratory failure. These multi-hits can exacerbate brain damage.

Prematurity is associated with significantly increased risk of neurobehavioral pathologies, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. In both psychiatric disorders, the prefrontal cortex inhibitory circuit is disrupted due to alterations of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) interneurons in a brain region involved in working memory and social cognition.

Cortical interneurons are created and migrate late in pregnancy and early infancy. That timing leaves them particularly vulnerable to insults, such as preterm birth.

In order to investigate the effects of perinatal insults on GABAergic interneuron development, the Children’s research team, led by Helene Lacaille, Ph.D., in Dr. Penn’s laboratory, subjected the new preterm encephalopathy experimental model to a battery of neurobehavioral tests, including working memory, cognitive flexibility and social cognition.

“This translational study, which examined the prefrontal cortex in age-matched term and preterm babies supports our hypothesis that specific cellular alterations seen in preterm encephalopathy can be linked with a heightened risk of children experiencing neuropsychiatric disorders later in life,” Dr. Penn adds. “Specific interneuron subtypes may provide specific therapeutic targets for medicines that hold the promise of preventing or lessening these neurodevelopmental risks.”

In addition to Dr. Penn and Lead Author Lacaille, Children’s co-authors include Claire-Marie Vacher; Dana Bakalar, Jiaqi J. O’Reilly and Jacquelyn Salzbank, all of Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award R01HD092593, District of Columbia Intellectual Developmental Disabilities Research Center under award U54HD090257, Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation, Children’s National Board of Visitors, Children’s Research Institute and Fetal Medicine Institute.

Study authors Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D. and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Children’s perinatal hypoxia research lauded

Study authors Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D. and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Study authors Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D. and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Chronic sublethal hypoxia is associated with locomotor miscoordination and long-term cerebellar learning deficits in a clinically relevant model of neonatal brain injury, according to a study led by Children’s National Health System researchers published by Nature Communications. Using high-tech optical and physiological methods that allow researchers to turn neurons on and off and an advanced behavioral tool, the research team found that Purkinje cells fire significantly less often after injury due to perinatal hypoxia.

The research team leveraged a fully automated, computerized apparatus – an Erasmus Ladder – to test experimental models’ adaptive cerebellar locomotor learning skills, tracking their missteps as well as how long it took the models to learn the course.

The research project, led by Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., a Children’s postdoctoral research fellow, was honored with a F1000 primevery good rating.” The Children’s research team used both quantitative behavior tests and electrophysiological assays, “a valuable and objective platform for functional assessment of targeted therapeutics in neurological disorders,” according to the recommendation on a digital forum in which the world’s leading scientists and clinicians highlight the best articles published in the field.

Calling the Erasmus Ladder an “elegant” behavioral system, Richard Lu, Ph.D., and Kalen Berry write that the Children’s National Health System research team “revealed locomotor behavior and cerebellar learning deficits, and further utilized multielectrode recording/optogenetics approaches to define critical pathophysiological features, such as defects in Purkinje cell firing after neonatal brain injury.”

Lu, Beatrice C. Lampkin Endowed Chair in Cancer Epigenetics, and Berry, an associate faculty member in the Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute, both at Cincinnati Children’s, note that the Children’s results “suggest that GABA signaling may represent a potential therapeutic target for hypoxia-related neonatal brain injury that, if provided at the correct time during development post-injury, could offer lifelong improvements.”

In addition to Sathyanesan, Children’s co-authors include Co-Lead Author, Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D., and Joseph Abbah, both of Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research, and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s Chief Research Officer and the study’s senior author.

Research covered in this story was supported by the Intellectual and Developmental Disability Research Center under award number U54HD090257.

little girl in hosptial corridor

A growing list of factors that impact CKD severity for kids

little girl in hosptial corridor

Myriad biological and societal factors can impact the occurrence and accelerate progression of chronic kidney disease for children of African descent – including preterm birth, exposure to toxins during gestation and lower socioeconomic status – and can complicate these children’s access to effective treatments.

Myriad biological and societal factors can impact the occurrence and accelerate progression of chronic kidney disease (CKD) for children of African descent – including preterm birth, exposure to toxins during gestation and lower socioeconomic status – and can complicate these children’s access to effective treatments, according to an invited commentary published in the November 2018 edition of American Journal of Kidney Diseases.

Clinicians caring for “these vulnerable children should be mindful of these multiple competing and compounding issues as treatment options are being considered along the continuum from CKD to kidney failure to transplantation,” writes Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., chief of the Division of Nephrology at Children’s National Health System.

The supplemental article was informed by lessons learned from The Chronic Kidney Disease in Children (CKiD) longitudinal study and conversations that occurred during the Frank M. Norfleet Forum for Advancement of Health, “African Americans and Kidney Disease in the 21st Century.”

African American children represent 23 percent of the overall population of kids with CKD in the CKiD study. While acquired kidney diseases can get their start during childhood when the diseases betray few symptoms, the full impact of illness may not be felt until adulthood. A number of factors can uniquely affect children of African descent, heightening risk for some kids who already are predisposed to suffering more severe symptoms. These include:

  • Preterm birth. African American children make up 36 percent of patients in CKiD with glomerular disease, which tends to have faster progression to end-stage renal disease. These diseases impair kidney function by weakening glomeruli, which impairs the kidneys’ ability to clean blood. Patients with a high-risk apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) genotype already are at higher risk for focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) and CKD. Researchers hypothesize that preterm birth may represent “a second hit that facilitates the development of glomerular damage resulting from the high-risk genotype.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 U.S. infants in 2016 was born preterm, e.g., prior to 37 weeks gestation.
  • APOL1 genotype. Compared with children who had a low-risk genotype and FSGS, children with a high-risk genotype had higher rates of uncontrolled hypertension, left ventricular hypertrophy, elevated C-reactive protein levels and obesity.
  • Human immunodeficiency viral (HIV) status. About 65 percent of U.S. children with HIV-1/AIDS are African American. In a recent nested case-control study of children infected with HIV in the womb, infants with high-risk APOL1 genotypes were 3.5 times more likely to develop CKD with viral infection serving as “a likely second hit.”
  • Access to kidney transplant. African American adults experience a faster transition to end-stage renal disease and are less likely to receive kidney transplants. African American children with CKD from nonglomerular diseases begin renal replacement therapy 1.6 years earlier than children of other races, after adjusting for socioeconomic status. Their wait for dialysis therapy was 37.5 percent shorter. However, these African American children waited 53.7 percent longer for transplants. Although donor blood types, genetic characteristics and other biological factors each play contributing roles, “these findings may reflect sociocultural and institutional differences not captured by socioeconomic status,” Dr. Moxey-Mims writes.

To alleviate future health care disparities, she suggests that additional research explore the impact of expanding services to pregnant women to lower their chances of giving birth prematurely; early childhood interventions to help boost children’s educational outcomes, future job prospects and income levels; expanded studies about the impact of environmental toxicities on prenatal and postnatal development; and heightened surveillance of preterm infants as they grow older to spot signs of kidney disease earlier to slow or prevent disease progression.

“Clinicians can now begin to take into account genetics, socioeconomic status and the impact of the built environment, rather than blaming people and assuming that their behavior alone brought on kidney disease,” Dr. Moxey-Mims adds. “Smoking, not eating properly and not exercising can certainly make people vulnerable to disease. However, there are so many factors that go into developing a disease that patients cannot control: You don’t control to whom you’re born, where you live or available resources where you live. These research projects will be useful to help us really get to the bottom of which factors we can impact and which things can’t we prevent but can strive to mitigate.”

The article covered in this post is part of a supplement that arose from the Frank M. Norfleet Forum for Advancement of Health: African Americans and Kidney Disease in the 21st Century, held March 24, 2017, in Memphis, Tennessee. The Forum and the publication of this supplement were funded by the Frank M. Norfleet Forum for Advancement of Health, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Marva Moxey Mims

Making the case for a comprehensive national registry for pediatric CKD

Marva Moxey Mims

“It’s of utmost importance that we develop more sensitive ways to identify children who are at heightened risk for developing CKD.,” says Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D. “A growing body of evidence suggests that this includes children treated in pediatric intensive care units who sustained acute kidney injury, infants born preterm and low birth weight, and obese children.”

Even though chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a global epidemic that imperils cardiovascular health, impairs quality of life and heightens mortality, very little is known about how CKD uniquely impacts children and how kids may be spared from its more devastating effects.

That makes a study published in the November 2018 issue of the American Journal of Kidney Diseases all the more notable because it represents the largest population-based study of CKD prevalence in a nationally representative cohort of adolescents aged 12 to 18, Sun-Young Ahn, M.D., and Marva Moxey-Mims, M.D., of Children’s National Health System, write in a companion editorial published online Oct. 18, 2018.

In their invited commentary, “Chronic kidney disease in children: the importance of a national epidemiological study,” Drs. Ahn and Moxey-Mims point out that pediatric CKD can contribute to growth failure, developmental and neurocognitive defects and impaired cardiovascular health.

“Children who require renal-replacement therapy suffer mortality rates that are 30 times higher than children who don’t have end-stage renal disease,” adds Dr. Moxey-Mims, chief of the Division of Nephrology at Children’s National. “It’s of utmost importance that we develop more sensitive ways to identify children who are at heightened risk for developing CKD. A growing body of evidence suggests that this includes children treated in pediatric intensive care units who sustained acute kidney injury, infants born preterm and low birth weight, and obese children.”

At its early stages, pediatric CKD usually has few symptoms, and clinicians around the world lack validated biomarkers to spot the disease early, before it may become irreversible.

While national mass urine screening programs in Japan, Taiwan and Korea have demonstrated success in early detection of CKD, which enabled successful interventions, such an approach is not cost-effective for the U.S., Drs. Ahn and Moxey-Mims write.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 U.S. infants in 2016 was born preterm, prior to 37 weeks gestation. Because of that trend, the commentators advocate for “a concerted national effort” to track preterm and low birth weight newborns. (These infants are presumed to have lower nephron endowment, which increases their risk for developing end-stage kidney disease.)

“We need a comprehensive, national registry just for pediatric CKD, a database that represents the entire U.S. population that we could query to glean new insights about what improves kids’ lifespan and quality of life. With a large database of anonymized pediatric patient records we could, for example, assess the effectiveness of specific therapeutic interventions, such as angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, in improving care and slowing CKD progression in kids,” Dr. Moxey-Mims adds.

toddler on a playground

Perinatal hypoxia associated with long-term cerebellar learning deficits and Purkinje cell misfiring

toddler on a playground

The type of hypoxia that occurs with preterm birth is associated with locomotor miscoordination and long-term cerebellar learning deficits but can be partially alleviated with an off-the-shelf medicine, according to a study using a preclinical model.

Oxygen deprivation associated with preterm birth leaves telltale signs on the brains of newborns in the form of alterations to cerebellar white matter at the cellular and the physiological levels. Now, an experimental model of this chronic hypoxia reveals that those cellular alterations have behavioral consequences.

Chronic sublethal hypoxia is associated with locomotor miscoordination and long-term cerebellar learning deficits in a clinically relevant model of neonatal brain injury, according to a study led by Children’s National Health System researchers published online Aug. 13, 2018, by Nature Communications. Using high-tech optical and physiological methods that allow researchers to turn neurons on and off and an advanced behavioral tool, the research team finds that Purkinje cells fire significantly less often after injury due to perinatal hypoxia. However, an off-the-shelf medicine now used to treat epilepsy enables those specialized brain cells to regain their ability to fire, improving locomotor performance.

Step out of the car onto the pavement, hop up to the level of the curb, stride to the entrance, and climb a flight of stairs. Or, play a round of tennis. The cerebellum coordinates such locomotor performance and muscle memory, guiding people of all ages as they adapt to a changing environment.

“Most of us successfully coordinate our movements to navigate the three-dimensional spaces we encounter daily,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s Chief Research Officer and the study’s senior author. “After children start walking, they also have to learn how to navigate the environment and the spaces around them.”

These essential tasks, Gallo says, are coordinated by Purkinje cells, large neurons located in the cerebellum that are elaborately branched like interlocking tree limbs and represent the only source of output for the entire cerebellar cortex. The rate of development of the fetal cerebellum dramatically increases at a time during pregnancy that often coincides with preterm birth, which can delay or disrupt normal brain development.

“It’s almost like a short circuit. Purkinje cells play a very crucial role, and when the frequency of their firing is diminished by injury the whole output of this brain region is impaired,” Gallo says. “For a family of a child who has this type of impaired neural development, if we understand the nature of this disrupted circuitry and can better quantify it, in terms of locomotor performance, then we can develop new therapeutic approaches.”

Study authors Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D. and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

The research team leveraged a fully automated, computerized apparatus that looks like a ladder placed on a flat surface, encased in glass, with a darkened box at either end. Both the hypoxic and control groups had training sessions during which they learned how to traverse the horizontal ladder, coaxed out of the darkened room by a gentle puff of air and a light cue. Challenge sessions tested their adaptive cerebellar locomotor learning skills. The pads they strode across were pressure-sensitive and analyzed individual stepping patterns to predict how long it should take each to complete the course.

During challenge sessions, obstacles were presented in the course, announced by an audible tone. If learning was normal, then the response to the tone paired with the obstacle would be a quick adjustment of movement, without breaking stride, says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., co-lead author. Experimental models exposed to perinatal hypoxia showed significant deficits in associating that tone with the obstacle.

“With the control group, we saw fewer missteps during any given trial,” Sathyanesan says. “And, when they got really comfortable, they took longer steps. With the hypoxic group, it took them longer to learn the course. They made a significantly higher number of missteps from day one. By the end of the training period, they could walk along all of the default rungs, but it took them longer to learn how to do so.”

Purkinje cells fire two different kinds of spikes. Simple spikes are a form of constant activity as rhythmic and automatic as a heartbeat. Complex spikes, by contrast, occur less frequently. Sathyanesan and co-authors say that some of the deficits that they observed were due to a reduction in the frequency of simple spiking.

Two weeks after experiencing hypoxia, the hypoxic group’s locomotor performance remained significantly worse than the control group, and delays in learning could still be seen five weeks after hypoxia.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter, excites immature neurons before and shortly after birth but soon afterward switches to having an inhibitory effect within in the cerebellum, Sathyanesan says. The research team hypothesizes that reduced levels of excitatory GABA during early development leads to long-term motor problems. Using an off-the-shelf drug to increase GABA levels immediately after hypoxia dramatically improved locomotor performance.

“Treating experimental models with tiagabine after hypoxic injury elevates GABA levels, partially restoring Purkinje cells’ ability to fire,” Gallo says. “We now know that restoring GABA levels during this specific window of time has a beneficial effect. However, our approach was not specifically targeted to Purkinje cells. We elevated GABA everywhere in the brain. With more targeted and selective administration to Purkinje cells, we want to gauge whether tiagabine has a more powerful effect on normalizing firing frequency.”

In addition to Gallo and Sathyanesan, Children’s co-authors include Co-Lead Author, Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D., and Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., both of Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research.

Research covered in this story was supported by the Intellectual and Developmental Disability Research Center under award number U54HD090257.

Sudeepta Basu

GABA concentration in pre-term brain increases with gestational age

Sudeepta Basu

“A more complete understanding of the diagnostic and prognostic importance of GABA and glutamate in the preterm brain will help us to direct treatment strategies for the most vulnerable preterm infants at risk of brain injury,” says Sudeepta K. Basu, M.D.

The major neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate are pivotal to fetal and newborn brain development and influence evolution of brain injury and repair following preterm birth. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) enables in vivo measurement of brain metabolites. However, GABA and glutamate are found in the developing brain in low concentrations, and their weak signal can be swamped by the stronger signal of more dominant metabolites.

A Children’s research team reports findings from a pilot study utilizing an innovative technique of MRS to reliably measure in vivo GABA in the developing preterm brain. The groundbreaking research done by the team that includes Principal Investigator Sudeepta K. Basu, M.D., neonatology attending at Children’s National Health System, is very unique and original since there are no existing data of in vivo GABA concentrations in the developing cerebellum. Under the mentorship of Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of Children’s Developing Brain Research Laboratory, the team of multi-disciplinary specialists is pursuing cutting-edge technologies in advanced MRI neuroimaging to explore brain development and injury in preterm infants.

The research, presented at the Eastern Society for Pediatric Research (ESPR) annual meeting by Dr. Basu, was honored with the “2018 Meritorious Poster Award.” The research titled “Distinct temporal trends of GABA and glutamate in the cerebellum and frontal cortex of preterm infants” reports, for the first time, positive temporal trends in the specific regions of the developing brain intricately involved in cognitive and motor functions. This work lays the foundation for developing novel ways to diagnose, monitor and investigative brain protective therapies for vulnerable prematurely born infants.

The Children’s team performed non-sedated MRS in 44 preterm infants whose mean gestational age at birth was 26.5 weeks, placing voxels at the middle of the cerebellum and the right frontal cortex. GABA and GIx (glutamate combined with glutamine) were positively correlated with post-menstrual age in the frontal cortex, but not the cerebellum.  At the ESPR meeting, the team also presented for the first time that caffeine, a neuroprotective agent in preemies, leads to increased in vivo GABA concentration in the developing frontal cortex.

“Open questions include whether these findings reflect varying paces of maturation and vulnerability to injury among specific regions of the brain. Also, the relationship between clinical factors and medication exposure and changes in the concentration of these neurotransmitters may guide brain protective therapies in future,” Dr. Basu says. “A more complete understanding of the diagnostic and prognostic importance of GABA and glutamate in the preterm brain will help us to direct treatment strategies for the most vulnerable preterm infants at risk of brain injury.”

Children’s senior fellows from Division of Neonatology made four platform presentations during the ESPR conference:

  • “Caffeine increases GABA/Cr ratio in frontal cortex of preterm infants on spectroscopy.” Aditi Gupta; Sudeepta K. Basu, M.D.; Mariam Said, M.D.; Subechhya Pradhan, Linda White; Kushal Kapse; Jonathan Murnick, M.D., Ph.D.; Taeun Chang, M.D.; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.
  • “Impact of early nutrition on microstructural brain development in VLBW Infants.” Katherine M. Ottolini, Nickie Andescavage, M.D.; Kushal Kapse; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.
  • “Direct measurement of neonatal cardiac output utilizing the CO status monitor.” Simranjeet S. Sran, Mariam Said, M.D.; and Khodayar Rais-Bahrami, M.D.
  • “Cerebro-cerebellar diaschisis in preterm infants following unilateral cerebral parenchymal injury.” Huma Mirza, Yao Wu, Kushal Kapse, Jonathan Murnick, M.D., Ph.D.; Taeun Chang, M.D.; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.
Volumetric imaging of upper airways

Preemies’ narrowed upper airways may explain higher OSA risk

Volumetric imaging of upper airways

The airway structures of interest to the Children’s National research team included the nasopharynx (labeled red), oropharynx (labeled purple), hypopharynx (labeled green), adenoids (labeled yellow) and tonsils (labeled blue). The team displayed the volumetric imaging in three perpendicular planes and a three-dimensional model.
Credit: A. Smitthimedhin, et al, Clinical Imaging.

Infants born preterm have significantly lower nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal volumes, compared with newborn peers carried to full term, and those lower airway volumes are independent of the infants’ gender, ethnicity or weight, according to a study published online Dec. 16, 2017 in Clinical Imaging.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 babies born in the United States is preterm, or born prior to the 37th gestational week. Premature birth leaves these children more susceptible to disordered breathing while sleeping, including obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), an ailment characterized by increased upper-airway resistance that narrows airways.

“In addition to finding some airway volumes were smaller in preterm infants, our results indicated both sets of newborns had similar hypopharyngeal volumes. This suggests that risk factors that lead to OSA are confined to the uppermost airway and do not appear to be explained by enlarged adenoids and tonsils,” says Anilawan Smitthimedhin, a Children’s National Health System radiology research fellow at the time the study was performed and lead author of the paper.

In order to diagnose OSA, clinicians now use bronchoscopy, but the method has limitations, including the need to insert a lighted instrument into the airway, which can affect pressure and resistance within the airway.

The Children’s National research team theorized that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) could offer a non-invasive way to evaluate the upper airway, determine its anatomy and dynamic function, while shielding infants from radiation exposure that can accompany other imaging techniques.

They enrolled 96 infants who had undergone brain MRIs as part of an unrelated study about neonatal brain development. The newborns had a range of medical conditions, including suspected hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, cardiac disease and seizures/movement disorders.

Forty-nine of the infants were born preterm; at the time of the MRI, their corrected mean gestational age was 38.4 weeks. Forty-seven of the newborns were born full term; they received MRIs at 1.7 weeks of age. The airway structures of interest included the nasopharynx (the upper part of the pharynx), oropharynx (located at the back of the mouth behind the oral cavity), hypopharynx (the entrance into the esophagus), adenoids and tonsils. The team displayed the volumetric imaging in three perpendicular planes and a three-dimensional model.

“Nasopharyngeal volume of full-term infants was 495.6 mm, compared with 221.1 mm in preterm infants. Oropharyngeal volume of full-term infants was 313.6 mm, compared with 179.3 mm in preterm infants,” Smitthimedhin says.

Aided by volumetric 3D data that more accurately measures airway and lymphoid tissue, the team proposes to study a larger group of infants to determine whether narrowing of the uppermost airways predisposes very young children to experiencing OSA later in life.

“Ultimately, our goal is to incorporate dedicated, dynamic MR imaging of the airway while children sleep, which would provide real-time, detailed information about the changes associated with sleep. This innovation holds the promise of leading to more accurate, non-invasive diagnosis of OSA in infants,” says Dorothy Bulas, M.D., chief of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology at Children’s National.

Children’s National study co-authors include Radiologist Matthew Whitehead, M.D.; University of Maryland student Mahya Bigdeli; Pulmonologist Gustavo Nino Barrera, M.D.; Pulmonologist Geovanny Perez, M.D,; and Hansel Otero, who was at Children’s National when the research work was performed but now works at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Latina mother playing with her baby boy son on bed

Helping parents of babies leaving NICU cope

Latina mother playing with her baby boy son on bed

A study team from Children’s National tried to determine factors closely associated with poor emotional function in order to identify at-risk parents most in need of mental health support.

Nearly half of parents reported depressive symptoms, anxiety and stress when their infants were discharged from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and parents who were the most anxious were the most depressed. A Children’s National Health System team presented these research findings during the 2017 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) national conference.

Because their infants’ lives hang in the balance, NICU parents are at particular risk for poor emotional function, including mood disorders, anxiety and distress. Children’s National Neonatologist Lamia Soghier, M.D., and the study team tried to determine factors closely associated with poor emotional function in order to identify at-risk parents most in need of mental health support.

The study team enrolled 300 parents and infants in a randomized controlled clinical trial that explored the impact of providing peer-to-peer support to parents after their newborns are discharged from the NICU. The researchers relied on a 10-item tool to assess depressive symptoms and a 46-question tool to describe the degree of parental stress. They used regression and partial correlation to characterize the relationship between depressive symptoms, stress, gender and educational status with such factors as the infant’s gestational age at birth, birth weight and length of stay.

Some 58 percent of the infants in the study were male; 58 percent weighed less than 2,500 grams at birth; and the average length of stay for 54 percent of infants was less than two weeks. Eighty-nine percent of parents who completed the surveys were mothers; 44 percent were African American; and 45 percent reported having attained at least a college degree. Forty-three percent were first-time parents.

About 45 percent of NICU parents had elevated Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) scores.

“The baby’s gender, gestational age at birth and length of NICU stay were associated with the parents having more pronounced depressive symptoms,” Dr. Soghier says. “Paradoxically, parents whose newborns were close to full-term at delivery had 6.6-fold increased odds of having elevated CES-D scores compared with parents of preemies born prior to 28 weeks’ gestation. Stress levels were higher in mothers compared with fathers, but older parents had lower levels of stress than younger parents.”

Dr. Soghier says the results presented at AAP are an interim analysis. The longer-term PCORI-funded study continues and explores the impact of providing peer support for parents after NICU discharge.

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.

Altered blood flow may contribute to preemie brain injuries

A Children’s National research team for the first time mapped abnormalities in blood flow that may contribute to brain injury suffered by preterm infants.

Advanced noninvasive imaging permitted Children’s National Health System researchers to measure the lasting impact of abnormalities in blood flow on the immature brains of premature babies. Blood flow to the brain, or perfusion, has been studied previously to understand its role in other health conditions, but this is the first time a research team has mapped how these changes may contribute to brain injury suffered by babies born before 32 weeks’ gestation.

Preterm birth is a major risk factor for brain injury. The prospective study examined infants weighing less than 1,500 grams who were born prior to 32 gestational weeks.

Of 78 infants studied, 47 had structural brain injuries categorized as either mild or moderate to severe, and 31 had no brain injury. While global cerebral blood flow decreased with advancing postnatal age, the blood flow decreased more significantly among preterm infants with brain injury, says Eman S. Mahdi, M.D., M.B.Ch.B. Dr. Mahdi is a pediatric radiology fellow at Children’s National and lead author of the abstract.

“In addition to differences in global brain blood flow, we saw a marked decrease in regional blood flow to the thalamus and the pons, regions known to be metabolically active during this time,” Dr. Mahdi says. The thalamus helps to process information from the senses and relays it elsewhere within the brain. Located at the base of the brain, the pons is part of the central nervous system and also is a critical relay of information between the cerebrum and cerebellum. “These regional variations in blood flow reflect vulnerability of the cerebral-cerebellar circuitry,” she adds.

The Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) recognized Dr. Mahdi with its Trainee Research Prize. She presented the work, “Cerebral Perfusion Is Perturbed by Preterm Birth and Brain Injury,” during the RSNA Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting, held from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2.

The findings point to the need for additional research to explore how cerebral blood flow trends evolve as preemies grow older and whether abnormal blood flow is linked to differences in health outcomes. In addition, the technique used by the research team, arterial spin labeling perfusion imaging – a type of magnetic resonance imaging – represents a useful and non-invasive technology for identifying early cerebral perfusion abnormalities in preterm infants, says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and abstract senior author.