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glial cells

Dr. Nathan A. Smith receives $600,000 DOD ARO grant to study the role of glial cells in neural excitability and cognition

glial cells

Microglia are the resident immune cells of the central nervous system that have highly dynamic processes that continuously survey the brain’s microenvironment, making contact with both neurons and astrocytes.

In his pursuit to understand the function of neural circuits within the brain, Nathan A. Smith, M.S., Ph.D., principal investigator at Children’s National Hospital, is examining how specialized glial cells, known as astrocytes and microglia, work together to influence neural networks and potentially enhance neuro-cognition.

Dr. Smith has just secured a new $600,000 grant from the Department of Defense Army Research Laboratory to pursue cutting-edge experimental approaches to examine the role of astrocytes in Ca2+-dependent microglia modulation of synaptic activity. This project will enhance our understanding of neuronal excitability and cognition, and define a new role for microglia in these processes.

“Glia cells play an important role in modulating synaptic function via Ca2+-dependent mechanisms,” says Dr. Smith. “It’s time for these cells to receive recognition as active participants, rather than passive contributors, in fundamental neural processes.”

Dr. Smith and his laboratory at Children’s National Research Institute are using novel experimental models to study the dynamics underlying Ca2+-mediated microglia process extension and retraction to further our understanding of how microglia, astrocytes and neurons interact in the healthy brain.

“Completion of the proposed studies has the potential to redefine the role(s) of microglia in higher brain functions and highlight the significant contribution of these cells,” Dr. Smith says. “Most importantly, elucidating the mechanisms that underlie glial cell modulation of neural circuits will not only further our understanding of normal brain function but also open new avenues to developing more accurate computational models of neural circuits.”

Dr. Nathan Smith

Dr. Smith and his laboratory at Children’s National Research Institute are using novel experimental models to study the dynamics underlying Ca2+-mediated microglia process extension and retraction to further our understanding of how microglia, astrocytes and neurons interact in the healthy brain.

Microglia are the resident immune cells of the central nervous system that have highly dynamic processes that continuously survey the brain’s microenvironment, making contact with both neurons and astrocytes. However, because of our inability to directly monitor Ca2+ activity in microglia, very little is known about the intracellular Ca2+ dynamics in resting microglia and their role in surveillance and modulation of synaptic activity.

Dr. Smith’s research team and his use of cutting-edge technology are a perfect match with the Army’s new modernization priorities. Dr. Smith’s research program and the new Army’s initiatives will greatly benefit from each other and ultimately contribute to a better understanding of the human brain.

“This research will help address a major gap in our understanding of the roles that glial cells play in regulating the computations of the nervous system through their interactions with neurons, which could also inspire a new class of artificial neural network architectures,” said Dr. Frederick Gregory, program manager, Army Research Office, an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory.

The grant will begin on July 1, 2020, and will last over three years. Dr. Smith’s research is also supported by other grants, including awards from the NIH and the National Science Foundation.

“As Dr. Smith’s mentor, the ultimate joy for a mentor is to see his mentees follow their dreams and be recognized for their accomplishments,” said Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National Hospital. “I couldn’t be prouder of Nathan, and I am fully confident that this new research grant will help him continue to grow an exceptional research program.”

coronavirus

Study finds children can become seriously ill with COVID-19

coronavirus

Despite early reports suggesting COVID-19 does not seriously impact children, a new study shows that children who contract COVID-19 can become very ill.

In contrast to the prevailing view that the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 does not seriously impact children, a new study finds that children who contract the virus can become very ill—many of them critically so, according to physician researchers at Children’s National Hospital. Their results, published in the Journal of Pediatrics and among the first reports from a U.S. institution caring for children and young adults, shows differences in the characteristics of children who recovered at home, were hospitalized, or who required life support measures. These findings highlight the spectrum of illness in children, and could help doctors and parents better predict which pediatric patients are more likely to become severely ill as a consequence of the virus.

In late 2019, researchers identified a new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. As the disease spread around the world, the vast majority of reports suggested that elderly patients bear the vast majority of the disease burden and that children are at less risk for either infection or severe disease. However, study leader Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s National, states that she and her colleagues began noticing an influx of children coming to the hospital for evaluation of a range of symptoms starting in mid-March 2020, who were tested and determined to be infected with COVID-19. One quarter of these children required hospitalization or life support.

“It was very apparent to us within the first several weeks of the epidemic that this was a very different situation than our colleagues on the West Coast of the US had described as their experience just weeks before,” DeBiasi says. “Right away, we knew that it was important for us to not only care for these sick children, but to examine the factors causing severe disease, and warn others who provide medical care to children.”

To better understand this phenomenon, she and her colleagues examined the medical records of symptomatic children and young adults who sought treatment at Children’s National for COVID-19 between March 15 and April 30, 2020. Each of these 177 children tested positive using a rapid assay to detect SARS-CoV-2 performed at the hospital. The researchers gathered data on each patient, including demographic details such as age and sex; their symptoms; whether they had any underlying medical conditions; and whether these patients were non-hospitalized, hospitalized, or required critical care.

The results of their analysis show that there was about an even split of male and female patients who tested positive for COVID-19 at Children’s National during this time period. About 25% of these patients required hospitalization. Of those hospitalized, about 75% weren’t considered critically ill and about 25% required life support measures. These included supplemental oxygen delivered by intubation and mechanical ventilation, BiPAP, or high-flow nasal cannula – all treatments that support breathing – as well as other support measures such as dialysis, blood pressure support and medications to treat infection as well as inflammation.

Although patients who were hospitalized spanned the entire age range, more than half of them were either under a year old or more than 15 years old. The children and young adults over 15 years of age, Dr. DeBiasi explains, were more likely to require critical care.

About 39% of all COVID-19 patients had underlying medical conditions, including asthma, which has been highlighted as a risk factor for worse outcomes with this infection. However, DeBiasi says, although underlying conditions were more common as a whole in hospitalized patients – present in about two thirds of hospitalized and 80% of critically ill – asthma didn’t increase the risk of hospitalization or critical illness. On the other hand, children with underlying neurological conditions, such as cerebral palsy, microcephaly, or global developmental delay, as well as those with underlying cardiac, hematologic, or oncologic conditions were significantly more likely to require hospitalization.

In addition, although early reports of COVID-19 suggested that fever and respiratory symptoms are hallmarks of this infection, Dr. DeBiasi and her colleagues found that fewer than half of patients had both concurrently. Those with mild, upper respiratory symptoms, such as runny nose, congestion, and cough were less likely to end up hospitalized than those with more severe respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath. The frequency of other symptoms including diarrhea, chest pain and loss of sense of smell or taste was similar among hospitalized and non-hospitalized patients.

Dr. DeBiasi notes that although other East Coast hospitals are anecdotally reporting similar upticks in pediatric COVID-19 patients who become seriously ill, it’s currently unclear what factors might account for differences from the less frequent and milder pediatric illness on the West Coast. Some factors might include a higher East Coast population density, differences between the genetic, racial and ethnic makeup of the two populations, or differences between the viral strains circulating in both regions (an Asian strain on the West Coast, and a European strain on the East Coast).

Regardless, she says, the good news is that the more researchers learn about this viral illness, the better prepared parents, medical personnel and hospitals will be to deal with this ongoing threat.

Other researchers from Children’s National who participated in this study include Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., M.Sc.Meghan Delaney, D.O., M.P.H.Michael Bell, M.D. Karen Smith, M.D.Jay Pershad, M.D., Emily Ansusinha, Andrea Hahn, M.D., M.S., Rana Hamdy, M.D., M.P.H., MSCE, Nada Harik, M.D.Benjamin Hanisch, M.D.Barbara Jantausch, M.D.Adeline Koay, MBBS, MS.c., Robin Steinhorn, Kurt Newman, M.D. and David Wessel, M.D.

brain network illustration

$2.5M to protect the brain from metabolic insult

brain network illustration

The brain comprises only 2% of the body’s volume, but it uses more than 20% of its energy, which makes this organ particularly vulnerable to changes in metabolism.

More than 30 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority having Type 2 disease. Characterized by insulin resistance and persistently high blood sugar levels, poorly controlled Type 2 diabetes has a host of well-recognized complications: compared with the general population, a greatly increased risk of kidney disease, vision loss, heart attacks and strokes and lower limb amputations.

But more recently, says Nathan A. Smith, MS, Ph.D., a principal investigator in Children’s National Research Institute’s Center for Neuroscience Research, another consequence has become increasingly apparent. With increasing insulin resistance comes cognitive damage, a factor that contributes significantly to dementia diagnoses as patients age.

The brain comprises only 2% of the body’s volume, but it uses more than 20% of its energy, Smith explains – which makes this organ particularly vulnerable to changes in metabolism. Type 2 diabetes and even prediabetic changes in glucose metabolism inflict damage upon this organ in mechanisms with dangerous synergy, he adds. Insulin resistance itself stresses brain cells, slowly depriving them of fuel. As blood sugar rises, it also increases inflammation and blocks nitric oxide, which together narrow the brain’s blood vessels while also increasing blood viscosity.

When the brain’s neurons slowly starve, they become increasingly inefficient at doing their job, eventually succumbing to this deprivation. These hits don’t just affect individual cells, Smith adds. They also affect connectivity that spans across the brain, neural networks that are a major focus of his research.

While it’s well established that Type 2 diabetes significantly boosts the risk of cognitive decline, Smith says, it’s been unclear whether this process might be halted or even reversed. It’s this question that forms the basis of a collaborative Frontiers grant, $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation split between his laboratory; the lead institution, Stony Brook University; and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

Smith and colleagues at the three institutions are testing whether changing the brain’s fuel source from glucose to ketones – byproducts from fat metabolism – could potentially save neurons and neural networks over time. Ketones already have shown promise for decades in treating some types of epilepsy, a disease that sometimes stems from an imbalance in neuronal excitation and inhibition. When some patients start on a ketogenic diet – an extreme version of a popular fat-based diet – many can significantly decrease or even stop their seizures, bringing their misfiring brain cells back to health.

Principal Investigator Smith and his laboratory at the Children’s National Research Institute are using experimental models to test whether ketones could protect the brain against the ravages of insulin resistance. They’re looking specifically at interneurons, the inhibitory cells of the brain and the most energy demanding. The team is using a technique known as patch clamping to determine how either insulin resistance or insulin resistance in the presence of ketones affect these cells’ ability to fire.

They’re also looking at how calcium ions migrate in and out of the cells’ membranes, a necessary prerequisite for neurons’ electrical activity. Finally, they’re evaluating whether these potential changes to the cells’ electrophysiological properties in turn change how different parts of the brain communicate with each other, potentially restructuring the networks that are vital to every action this organ performs.

Colleagues at Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, led by Principal Investigator Eva-Maria Ratai, Ph.D.,  will perform parallel work in human subjects. They will use imaging to determine how these two fuel types, glucose or ketones, affect how the brain uses energy and produces the communication molecules known as neurotransmitters. They’re also investigating how these factors might affect the stability of neural networks using techniques that investigate the performance of these networks both while study subjects are at rest and performing a task.

Finally, colleagues at the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology at Stony Brook University, led by Principal Investigator Lilianne R. Mujica-Parodi, Ph.D., will use results generated at the other two institutions to construct computational models that can accurately predict how the brain will behave under metabolic stress: how it copes when deprived of fuel and whether it might be able to retain healthy function when its cells receive ketones instead of glucose.

Collectively, Smith says, these results could help retain brain function even under glucose restraints. (For this, the research team owes a special thanks to Mujica-Parodi, who assembled the group to answer this important question, thus underscoring the importance of team science, he adds.)

“By supplying an alternate fuel source, we may eventually be able to preserve the brain even in the face of insulin resistance,” Smith says.

Presidnet's Award for Innovation in Research

President’s Award highlights innovative work by early-career researchers

Presidnet's Award for Innovation in Research

As part of Research and Education Week 2018, two Presidential awardees were recognized for their research contributions, Catherine “Katie” Forster, M.D., M.S., and Nathan Anthony Smith, Ph.D.

Catherine “Katie” Forster, M.D., M.S., and Nathan Anthony Smith, Ph.D., received the President’s Award for Innovation in Research honoring their respective research efforts to explore an understudied part of the microbiome and to shed light on an underappreciated player in nerve cell communication.

Drs. Forster and Smith received their awards April 19, 2018, the penultimate day of Research and Education Week 2018, an annual celebration of the excellence in research, education, innovation and scholarship that takes place at Children’s National Health System. This year marks the fifth time the President’s Award honor has been bestowed to Children’s faculty.

Dr. Forster’s work focuses on preventing pediatric urinary tract infections (UTIs). Frequently, children diagnosed with illnesses like spina bifida have difficulty urinating on their own, and they often develop UTIs. These repeated infections are frequently treated with antibiotics which, in turn, can lead to the child developing antibiotic-resistant organisms.

“The majority of the time if you culture these children, you’ll grow something. In a healthy child, that culture would indicate a UTI,” Dr. Forster says. “Children with neurogenic bladder, however, may test positive for bacteria that simply look suspect but are not causing infection. Ultimately, we’re looking for better ways to diagnose UTI at the point of care to better personalize antibiotic treatment and limit prescriptions for children who do not truly need them.”

Powered by new sequencing techniques, a research group that includes Dr. Forster discovered that the human bladder hosts a significant microbiome, a diverse bacterial community unique to the bladder. Dr. Forster’s research will continue to characterize that microbiome to determine how that bacterial community evolves over time and whether those changes are predictable enough to intervene and prevent UTIs.

“Which genes are upregulated in Escherichia coli and the epithelium, and which genes are upregulated by both in response to each other? That can help us understand whether genes being upregulated are pathogenic,” she adds. “It’s a novel and exciting research area with significant public health implications.”

Smith’s work focuses on the role of astrocytes, specialized star-shaped glial cells, in modulating synaptic plasticity via norepinephrine. Conventional thinking describes astrocytes as support cells but, according to Smith, astrocytes are turning out to be more instrumental.

Norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that plays an essential role in attention and focus, is released by a process known as volume transmission, which is a widespread release of a neurotransmitter at once, says Smith, a principal investigator in Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research. Astrocytes, which outnumber neurons in the brain, are strategically and anatomically located to receive this diffuse input and translate it into action to modulate neural networks.

“We hypothesize that astrocytes are integral, functional partners with norepinephrine in modulating cortical networks,” Smith adds. “Since astrocytes and norepinephrine have been implicated in many central nervous system functions, including learning and attention, it is critical to define mechanistically how astrocytes and norepinephrine work together to influence neural networks. This knowledge also will be important for the development of novel therapeutics to treat diseases such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and epilepsy.”

Nathan Smith

Sounding the alarm on fluorescent calcium dyes

“This study serves as a warning to other neuroscientists,” says Nathan A. Smith, Ph.D., a new principal investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System and first author of the study.

Scientists using chemical based fluorescent dyes to study the calcium dynamics of the cells within the central nervous system suspected that something external was disrupting normal cell function in their studies.

Neuroscientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Children’s National Health System have confirmed their suspicions by capturing data that shows, for the first time, how these fluorescent calcium dyes are causing cell damage when loaded over an extended period of time.  Their findings appeared in Science Signaling.

“This study serves as a warning to other neuroscientists,” says Nathan A. Smith, Ph.D., a new principal investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System and first author of the study. “As many of my colleagues have noted, we’ve known that something was going on, but now, we have evidence that the longer these dyes stay in cells, or the longer time it takes to load them into cells, the more problems we see with normal cell function.”

The study comparatively analyzed the effects of chemical and genetically encoded calcium ion indicators on cellular functions, which had not been previously performed. The outcomes showed that all of the fluorescent calcium dyes, including Fluo-4, Rhod-2, and FURA-2, had negative consequences for a number of cellular functions. For example, the dyes inhibited the sodium potassium pump (Na,K-ATPase), a membrane protein essential for many cellular membrane functions including the exchange between intracellular sodium ions (Na+) and extracellular potassium ions (K+). Inhibiting the Na,K-ATPase process results in the buildup of K+ ions in the synapses, leading to errant neural firing that has been linked to a number of disorders, including epilepsy. Additional observed impacts of exposure to the dyes included reduced cell viability, decreased glucose uptake, increased lactate release and cell swelling.

“Now, our field needs to take a step back and reevaluate findings that may have been influenced by these chemical trackers, to make sure that our observations were driven by our intended manipulations and not this additional factor,” Dr. Smith continues.

Non-chemical alternatives

Tracking calcium ions and their dynamics within the central nervous system through fluorescent calcium indicators is the primary method of measuring glial activity and glial interactions with other cell types. Unlike neurons, glial cells are electrically non-excitable; therefore electrical-based recording methods used to measure neuronal activity are ineffective.

In recent years, neuroscientists have developed additional methods to track calcium ions: genetically encoded calcium indicators (GECIs), which have grown in use since 2008. These GECIs have evolved over the years to have higher signal to noise ratios, target specific cell types and sub-compartments, and remain stable over time.*

Dr. Smith’s lab uses GECIs exclusively to monitor the calcium dynamics of glial brain cells called astrocytes as well as their interactions with other cells such as neurons. His work now seeks to understand how those interactions influence neural networks and how they operate differently in neurodevelopmental disorders, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), epilepsy and others.

“Our field has continued using these traditional calcium indicator dyes in labs because they are familiar and affordable,” Dr. Smith notes. “Our findings are a clear call to action that it’s time to revisit some of those approaches in favor of new technology.”