Fetal Medicine

Dorothy Bulas

Dorothy Bulas, M.D., receives the Society for Pediatric Radiology’s highest honor

Dorothy Bulas

Dorothy Bulas, M.D. F.A.C.R., F.A.I.U.M., F.S.R.U., chief of diagnostic imaging and radiology in the Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology at Children’s National Health System, is being recognized at the 2018 Society for Pediatric Radiology Annual Meeting with their most distinguished honor, the Gold Medal.

The Society of Pediatric Radiology (SPR) Gold Medal is awarded to pediatric radiologists who have contributed greatly to the SPR and their subspecialty of pediatric radiology as a scientist, teacher, personal mentor and leader.

Initially, Dr. Bulas completed her residency in pediatrics. During a pediatric radiology rotation at John Hopkins University, she realized how much she loved problem solving and using emerging imaging modalities and went on to complete her radiology residency at Albert Einstein Hospital. Soon after, Dr. Bulas moved to Washington, D.C. to complete a pediatric radiology fellowship at her professional home, Children’s National.

Since the completion of her fellowship, Dr. Bulas views her role in the advancement of fetal imaging as her most significant professional contribution. She has published 131 papers, one of her most recent as a co-author on “Neuroimaging findings in normocephalic infants with Zika virus” in Pediatric Neurology. Dr. Bulas is also a co-author of the textbook entitled Fundamental and Advanced Fetal Imaging and has authored 35 book chapters.

She has served as program director of the Radiology Fellowship Program at Children’s National since 2005 where she has impacted medical students, residents and fellows from the United States and abroad.

As a previous chair member for numerous organizations, Dr. Bulas currently co-chairs the American College of Radiology’s pediatric radiology education committee. She is a founding member of the Image Gently Alliance, where she chaired the outreach campaign to parents and wrote brochures, web material and articles. Dr. Bulas is also a founder of the World Federation of Pediatric Imaging.

Dr. Bulas was honored as an outstanding teacher with the Edward Singleton-Hooshang Taybi Award for Excellence in Education from the SPR and this past fall and as the Outstanding Educator in 2017 by the Radiological Society of North America.

Robin Steinhorn

Children’s National senior vice president elected to American Pediatric Society leadership

Robin Steinhorn

Robin Steinhorn, M.D., Senior Vice President of Center for Hospital-Based Specialties at Children’s National Health System, was elected by her peers to become vice president and president-elect of the American Pediatric Society (APS) beginning May 2018 at the annual Pediatric Societies Meeting in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Steinhorn will serve in this role for one year and will then become the Society’s president in May 2019 for a one-year term.

Dr. Steinhorn is a globally recognized physician-leader, researcher and clinician in the fields of neonatal perinatal medicine and fetal pulmonary development. She was elected to the APS Council in 2015 and currently holds a seat on the American Board of Pediatrics’ Board of Directors.

“Dr. Steinhorn has devoted her professional career to advancing the field of pediatrics through exemplary leadership in related societies, as well as editorial oversight of cutting-edge research,” says David Wessel, M.D., executive vice president and chief medical officer of Hospital and Specialty Services at Children’s National. “This elevated role with the APS will enable her to further share her expertise to benefit children on a national and international level.”

Dr. Steinhorn serves as associate editor of the Journal of Pediatrics and is also a contributing editor for NEJM Journal Watch’s Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.  Additionally, she sits on the editorial boards of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine and Pulmonary Circulation. Dr. Steinhorn is an elected fellow of the American Heart Association and a member of both the Perinatal Research Society and the American Thorasic Society.

Founded in 1888, the American Pediatric Society is the oldest and most prestigious academic pediatric organization in North America. Members are elected to APS based on their accomplishments as academic leaders in pediatrics and goal to shape the future of academic pediatrics. Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., physician-in-chief and chief academic officer of Children’s National preceded Dr. Steinhorn as APS President from 2016-2017.

“This is a tremendous honor, and it is a special privilege to follow Dr. Batshaw’s sound leadership. I look forward to leveraging the collective leadership and research accomplishments by our members to improve the health of infants and children throughout the U.S.,” said Dr. Steinhorn.

Dr. Steinhorn joined Children’s National in 2015 after a successful tenure as professor and chair of the department of pediatrics at the University of California, Davis (UCD) School of Medicine and as physician-in-chief, UCD Children’s Hospital. Previously, she was vice chair of the department of pediatrics and chief of the division of neonatology at Northwestern University and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Dr. Steinhorn’s clinical and academic interests have focused primarily on fetal and neonatal pulmonary vascular development. Her translational work has spanned from in vitro studies, to experimental models and clinical trials. In addition to her own translational research program, she has participated in numerous multicenter trials that have helped define the clinical treatment of pulmonary hypertension during the neonatal period. Her clinical research work also has addressed other topics, such as harmonization of electronic health records for clinical research and telemedicine support of neonatal care in small rural hospitals.

Additionally, Dr. Steinhorn is particularly passionate about mentoring faculty and supporting the growth and career development of young neonatologists and scientists, with several having developed their own research laboratories and assumed division leadership positions. She was selected as a “Top Doctor” by Northern Virginia  Magazine in 2018.

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.
Vittorio Gallo

Perinatal brain injury headlines American Society for Neurochemistry

Vittorio Gallo

Dr. Gallo’s research could have major implications for overcoming the common behavioral and developmental challenges associated with premature birth.

Children’s National Chief Research Officer Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., recently had the honor of presenting a presidential lecture at the 48th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Neurochemistry (ASN). The lecture focused on his lifelong investigations of the cellular and molecular mechanisms of white matter development and injury, including myelin and glial cells – which are involved in the brain’s response to injury.

Specifically, he outlined the underlying diffuse white matter injury observed in his lab’s pre-clinical model of perinatal hypoxia, and presented new, non-invasive interventions that promote functional recovery and attenuate developmental delay after perinatal injury in the model. Diffuse white matter injuries are the most frequently observed pattern of brain injury in contemporary cohorts of premature infants. Illuminating methods that might stimulate growth and repair of such injuries shows promise for potential noninvasive strategies that might mitigate the long-term behavioral abnormalities and developmental delay associated with premature birth.

Dr. Gallo’s work in developmental neuroscience has been seminal in deepening understanding of cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. During his tenure as center director, he transformed the Center for Neuroscience Research into one of the nation’s premier programs.

ASN gathers nearly 400 delegates from the neurochemistry sector each year, including bench and clinical scientists, principal investigators, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows all actively involved in research from North America and around the world.

Sarah Mulkey

MRI finds novel brain defects in Zika-exposed newborns

Sarah Mulkey

“Imaging is constantly helping us make new discoveries with this virus, and in these two cases we found things that had not been previously described,” says Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has identified two brain abnormalities never before reported in newborns with prenatal exposure to the Zika virus. Children’s National Health System researchers reported these findings from a study of more than 70 fetuses or newborns with Zika exposure in utero. The study was published in the January 2018 edition of Pediatric Neurology.

The two novel defects – cranial nerve enhancement and cerebral infarction – may join the growing list of neurological findings associated with congenital Zika infection.

“Imaging is constantly helping us make new discoveries with this virus, and in these two cases we found things that had not been previously described,” says Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s lead author and a fetal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National. Dr. Mulkey works in Children’s Congenital Zika Virus Program, one of the nation’s first comprehensive, dedicated Zika programs.

The research team recommends that postnatal brain MRI be considered in addition to ultrasound for newborns exposed to Zika in utero. “Brain MRI can be performed in the newborn often without sedation and provides an opportunity to look for brain abnormalities we might not catch otherwise – or might not detect until much later,” says Dr. Mulkey.

Birth defects are seen in 6 to 11 percent of pregnancies affected by Zika, and some of the neurological complications in infants are not apparent until well after birth.

Of the two infants in which the new abnormalities were observed, both had normal head size at birth. Neither had smaller-than-normal head size (microcephaly), one of the more severe effects associated with congenital Zika syndrome.

One infant had a normal neurological evaluation at 2 days of age. However, a brain MRI conducted the following day, using gadolinium contrast due to concern of infection, showed enhancement of multiple cranial nerves. “Nerve root enhancement is very rare in a newborn and had not been described with Zika before,” Dr. Mulkey says. “Yet, there was no neurological deficit that we could identify by physical exam.”

The research team acknowledges that the clinical significance of this finding is not yet known.

In the second patient, brain MRI conducted without contrast at 16 days of age revealed a small area consistent with chronic infarction (ischemic stroke) that likely occurred during the third trimester.

“We followed the mother throughout her pregnancy, and both MRI and ultrasound imaging were normal at 28 weeks gestation,” Dr. Mulkey says. “A postnatal ultrasound was also normal, but the postnatal MRI showed a stroke that had occurred at least one month prior to the MRI and after the last fetal study.”

She adds: “This is the first published report of fetal stroke associated with Zika infection, and it may add to our knowledge of what can occur with congenital Zika infection.”

Unlike most congenital infections, Zika virus does not appear to cause viral-induced placental inflammation, which can lead to fetal stroke. So, the authors say they cannot be sure that congenital Zika contributed to the infarct in this case. However, they write, “Given the relatively low incidence of perinatal ischemic infarct and the lack of other maternal- or birth-related risk factors for this patient, Zika infection is considered a possible etiology.”

In both patients, neonatal brain MRI identified subclinical findings that had not previously been described as part of congenital Zika syndrome. As the body of evidence about the Zika virus has grown, the spectrum of associated brain abnormalities has expanded to include considerably more findings than isolated microcephaly.

Data gathered in 2017 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Zika pregnancy and infant registry indicates that 25 percent of eligible U.S. infants receive recommended postnatal imaging. Dr. Mulkey said this represents many possible missed opportunities for earlier identification of brain abnormalities.

“Brain MRI should be considered in all newborns exposed to Zika virus in utero, even in the presence of normal birth head circumference, normal cranial ultrasound and normal fetal imaging,” she says. “In both of these patients, the changes we observed were not evident on cranial ultrasound or on fetal MRI and fetal ultrasound.”

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, Children’s co-authors include L. Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Neuroradiology Program director; Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D., chief of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; Zarir Khademian, M.D., radiologist; Anna Blask, M.D., radiologist; Youssef A. Kousa, M.S., D.O., Ph.D., child neurology fellow; Lindsay Pesacreta, FNP; Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., Fetal Medicine Institute director; and Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., senior author and Pediatric Infectious Disease division chief; and Caitlin Cristante, B.S.

Financial support for this research was provided by the Thrasher Research Fund.

banner year

2017: A banner year for innovation at Children’s National

banner year

In 2017, clinicians and research faculty working at Children’s National Health System published more than 850 research articles about a wide array of topics. A multidisciplinary Children’s Research Institute review group selected the top 10 articles for the calendar year considering, among other factors, work published in high-impact academic journals.

“This year’s honorees showcase how our multidisciplinary institutes serve as vehicles to bring together Children’s specialists in cross-cutting research and clinical collaborations,” says Mark L. Batshaw, M.D., Physician-in-Chief and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National. “We’re honored that the National Institutes of Health and other funders have provided millions in awards that help to ensure that these important research projects continue.”

The published papers explain research that includes using imaging to describe the topography of the developing brains of infants with congenital heart disease, how high levels of iron may contribute to neural tube defects and using an incisionless surgery method to successfully treat osteoid osteoma. The top 10 Children’s papers:

Read the complete list.

Dr. Batshaw’s announcement comes on the eve of Research and Education Week 2018 at Children’s National, a weeklong event that begins April 16, 2018. This year’s theme, “Diversity powers innovation,” underscores the cross-cutting nature of Children’s research that aims to transform pediatric care.

foods rich in folate

An ironclad way to prevent neural tube defects? Not yet

foods rich in folate

Researchers have known for decades that folate, a vitamin enriched in dark, leafy vegetables; fruit; nuts; and other food sources, plays a key role in preventing neural tube defects.

Every year, about 3,000 pregnancies in the U.S. are affected by neural tube defects (NTDs) –  birth defects of the brain, spine and spinal cord. These include anencephaly, in which a major part of the brain, skull and scalp is missing; and spina bifida, in which the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord don’t close properly during fetal development. These structural birth defects can have devastating effects: In the best cases, they might lead to mild but lifelong disability; in the worst cases, babies don’t survive.

Researchers have known for decades that folate, a vitamin enriched in dark, leafy vegetables; fruit; nuts; and other food sources, plays a key role in preventing NTDs. To help get more folate into pregnant women’s diets, wheat flour in the U.S. and many other countries is often fortified with folic acid, a synthetic version of this vitamin, as part of an intervention credited with significantly reducing the incidence of NTDs.

But folic acid supplementation isn’t enough, says Irene E. Zohn, Ph.D., a principal investigator at the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System who studies how genes and the environment interact during development. A significant number of NTDs still occur, suggesting that other approaches – potentially, other nutrients in the maternal diet – might provide further protection.

That’s why Zohn and colleagues decided to investigate iron. Iron deficiency is one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies in women of childbearing age, Zohn explains. Additionally, iron and folate deficiencies often overlap and signal overall poor maternal diets.

The idea that iron deficiency might play a role in NTDs came from studies by Zohn and colleagues of the flatiron mutant line of experimental models. This experimental model line has a mutation in a gene that transports iron across cell membranes, including the cells that supply embryos with this critical micronutrient.

To determine if NTDs develop in these mutant experimental models because of reduced iron transport, the researchers devised a simple experiment: They took female adult experimental models with the mutation and separated them into four groups. For several weeks, one group ate a diet that was high in folic acid. Another group ate a diet high in iron. The third group ate a diet high in both folic acid and iron. The fourth group ate standard chow. All of these experimental models then became pregnant with embryos that harbored the flatiron mutation, and the researchers assessed the offspring for the presence of NTDs.

Irene Zohn

“We were hoping that iron supplements would be the next folic acid, but it did not turn out that way,” says Irene E. Zohn, Ph.D. “Even though our results demonstrate that iron is important for proper neural tube development, giving extra iron definitely has its downsides.”

As they reported in Birth Defects Research, the dietary interventions successfully increased iron stores: Experimental model mothers whose diets were supplemented with iron, folic acid or both had increased concentrations of these micronutrients in their blood.

The dietary interventions also affected their offspring. While about 80 percent of flatiron mutant embryos fed a standard diet during pregnancy had NTDs, feeding a diet high in iron prevented NTDs in half of the offspring. This lower rate was similar in the offspring of mothers fed a diet high in both folic acid and iron, but not for those whose mothers ate just a diet high in folic acid. Those embryos had NTD rates as high as those who ate just the standard chow, suggesting that low iron was the cause of the high rates, not low folic acid.

Together, Zohn says, these experiments show that iron plays an important role in the development of the neural tube and that deficits in iron might cause some cases of NTDs. However, she notes, reducing NTDs isn’t nearly as simple as supplementing pregnant women’s diets with iron. In the same study, the researchers found that when they gave normal experimental models that didn’t have the flatiron mutation concentrated iron supplements – amounts akin to what doctors might prescribe for human patients with very severe iron-deficiency anemia – folate stores dropped.

That’s because these two micronutrients interact in the body with similar sites for absorption and storage in the intestines and liver, Zohn explains. At either the intestines or liver or at both locations, an iron overload might interfere with the body’s ability to absorb or use folate.

At this point, she says, giving high doses of iron routinely during pregnancy doesn’t look like a feasible way to prevent NTDs.

“We were hoping that iron supplements would be the next folic acid, but it did not turn out that way,” Zohn says. “Even though our results demonstrate that iron is important for proper neural tube development, giving extra iron definitely has its downsides.”

Zohn’s team plans to continue to investigate the role of iron, as well as the role of other micronutrients that might influence neural tube development.

Zohn’s coauthors include Bethany A. Stokes, The George Washington University, and Julia A. Sabatino, Children’s National.

Research reported in this story was supported by a grant from the Board of Visitors, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development under award number R21-HD076202, the National Center for Research Resources under award number UL1RR031988, Children’s Research Institute and the National Institutes of Health under grant P30HD040677.

Pregnant-Mom

MRI opens new understanding of fetal growth restriction

Pregnant-Mom

Quantitative MRI can identify placental dysfunction complicated by fetal growth restriction earlier, creating the possibility for earlier intervention to minimize harm to the developing fetus.

A team of researchers has found that quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can identify pregnancies where placental dysfunction results in fetal growth restriction (FGR), creating the possibility for earlier FGR detection and intervention to augment placental function and thus minimize harm to the fetal brain.

The study, published online in the Journal of Perinatology, reports for the first time that in vivo placental volume is tied to global and regional fetal brain volumes.

Placental insufficiency is a known risk factor for impaired fetal growth and neurodevelopment. It may cause the fetus to receive inadequate oxygen and nutrients, making it difficult to grow and thrive. The earlier placental insufficiency occurs in a pregnancy, the more serious it can be. But detecting a failing placenta before the fetus is harmed has been difficult.

One additional challenge is that a fetus may be small because the placenta is not providing adequate nourishment. Or the fetus simply may be genetically predisposed to be smaller. Being able to tell the difference early can have a lifelong impact on a baby. Infants affected by FGR can experience behavioral problems, learning difficulties, memory and attention deficits, and psychiatric issues as the child grows into adolescence and adulthood.

“Our study proved that MRI can more accurately determine which pregnancies are at greater risk for impaired fetal health or compromised placenta function,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., the study’s lead author and a specialist in neonatology and neonatal neurology and neonatal critical care at Children’s National Health System. “The earlier we can identify these pregnancies, the more thoughtful we can be in managing care.”

Dr. Andescavage’s research focus has been how fetal growth affects labor, delivery and postnatal complications.

Nickie-Andescavage-Niforatos

“Our study proved that MRI can more accurately determine which pregnancies are at greater risk for impaired fetal health or compromised placenta function,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., the study’s lead author.

“We don’t have a good understanding of why FGR happens, but we do know it’s hard to identify during pregnancy because often there are no signs,” says Dr. Andescavage. “Even when detected, it’s hard to follow. But if we’re aware of it, we can better address important questions, like when to deliver an at-risk fetus.”

In the study, the team measured placental and fetal brain growth in healthy, uncomplicated pregnancies and in pregnancies complicated by FGR. A total of 114 women participated, undergoing ultrasound, Doppler ultrasound and MRI imaging to measure placental volume and fetal brain volume.

An ultrasound test is often what detects FGR, but the measurements generated by ultrasound can be non-specific. In addition, reproducibility issues with 3D sonography limit its use as a standalone tool for placental assessment. Once FGR is detected via ultrasound, this study showed that complementary MRI provides more accurate structural measures of the fetal brain, as well as more detail and insight into placental growth and function.

“Our team has studied FGR for a few years, using imaging to see that’s happening with the fetus in real time,” says Dr. Andescavage. “The relationship of placental volume and fetal brain development had not been previously studied in utero.”

In pregnancies complicated by FGR, MRI showed markedly decreased placental and brain volumes. The team observed significantly smaller placental, total brain, cerebral and cerebellar volumes in these cases than in the healthy controls. The relationship between increasing placental volume and increasing total brain volume was similar in FGR and in normal pregnancies. However, the study authors write “the overall volumes were smaller and thus shifted downward in pregnancies with FGR.”

In addition, FGR-complicated pregnancies that also showed abnormalities in Doppler ultrasound imaging had even smaller placental, cerebral and cerebellar volumes than pregnancies complicated by FGR that did not have aberrations in Doppler imaging.

Since this study showed that quantitative fetal MRI can accurately detect decreased placental and brain volumes when FGR is present, Dr. Andescavage believes this imaging technique may give doctors important new insights into the timing and possibly the mechanisms of brain injury in FGR.  “Different pathways can lead to FGR. With this assessment strategy, we could potentially elucidate those,” she adds.

Using quantitative MRI to identify early deviations from normal growth may create opportunities for future interventions to protect the developing fetal brain. New treatments on the horizon promise to address placental health. MRI could be used to investigate these potential therapies in utero. When those therapies become available, it could allow doctors to monitor treatment effects in utero.

Study co-authors include Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., Director of Children’s Fetal Medicine Institute; Marina Metzler; Dorothy Bulas, M.D., FACR, FAIUM, FSRU, Chief of Children’s Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; L. Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Director of Children’s Neuroradiology Program; Marni Jacobs; Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., Director of Children’s Developing Brain Research Laboratory and study senior author; Sabah N. Iqbal, MedStar Washington Hospital Center; and Ahmet Alexander Baschat, Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy.

Research reported in this post was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, MOP-81116; the National Institutes of Health under award numbers UL1TR000075 and KL2TR000076; and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National.

Neonatal baby

Multidisciplinary experts help CDC’s Zika research

“We are very excited about this next phase in our Zika research,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S. “It is a natural extension of our earlier participation as subject matter experts assisting as the CDC developed and published guidelines to inform the care of Zika-exposed and Zika-infected infants across the nation and U.S. territories.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is funding three multidisciplinary experts from the Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National Health System to collaborate on two of the CDC’s longitudinal Zika research projects in Colombia, South America.

“Zika en embarazadas y niños en Colombia” (ZEN) is a research study jointly designed by Colombia’s Instituto Nacional de Salud (INS) and the CDC to evaluate the association between Zika virus infection and adverse maternal, fetal and infant health outcomes. The study is following a large cohort of Colombian women from the first trimester of pregnancy, their male partners and their infants.

Under the six-month contract, Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., and Cara Biddle, M.D., M.P.H., will serve as consultants for the ZEN study providing expertise in pediatric infectious diseases, neurology, neurodevelopment and coordination of the complex care needs of Zika-affected infants.

The federal funding will underwrite the consultants’ work effort, as well as travel to the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta and to research sites in Colombia. To that end, Drs. DeBiasi, Mulkey and Biddle participated in a December 2017 kickoff meeting, joining ZEN team leaders based in the U.S. at the CDC, as well as the INS in Colombia, with whom they will conduct research and collaborate academically.

Cara-Biddle-and-Sarah-Mulkey

Cara Biddle, M.D., M.P.H., and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., also will serve as consultants for the ZEN study.

“We are very excited about this next phase in our Zika research,” says Dr. DeBiasi, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-director of the Children’s Zika program. “It is a natural extension of our earlier participation as subject matter experts assisting as the CDC developed and published guidelines to inform the care of Zika-exposed and Zika-infected infants across the nation and U.S. territories.”

Children’s National is leading its own longitudinal studies in Colombia that explore such questions as whether Zika-exposed infants whose neuroimaging appears normal when they are born experience any longer-term neurological issues and the role of genetics in neurologic injury following congenital Zika virus exposure and infection.

Sarah Viall

Newborn screening leader selected to advisory committee on heritable disorders in newborns and children

Sarah Viall

Sarah Viall, PPCNP, coordinator for the Newborn Screening Program at the Children’s National Rare Disease Institute (CNRDI), has been invited to serve on the Education and Training Workgroup of the Health Resources & Services Administration’s (HRSA) Advisory Committee on Heritable Disorders in Newborns and Children (ACHDNC).

Established under the Public Health Service Act, the ACHDNC focuses on reducing morbidity and mortality in newborns and children who have, or are at risk for, genetic disorders. The Committee currently recommends that all newborn screening programs include a Uniform Screening Panel that monitors for a total of 34 core disorders and another 26 secondary disorders.

In addition to developing recommendations on national newborn screening guidelines, the ACHDNC also advises the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary on the most appropriate application of newborn screening technologies, tests, policies and standards. The Committee provides technical information that helps develop Heritable Disorders Program policies and priorities that enhance the ability of local and state health agencies to provide screening, healthcare services and counseling for newborns and children affected by genetic disease.

Viall had previously spent a year observing meetings for the ACHDNC Education and Training Workgroup.

“I am thrilled to be an official member that can contribute to the important work of educating communities about newborn screening,” says Viall.

the cerebral blood flow (CBF) maps, corresponding anatomical image aligned to the CBF map, and the regions of interest examined

Tracking preemies’ blood flow to monitor brain maturation

Blood is the conduit through which our cells receive much of what they need to grow and thrive. The nutrients and oxygen that cells require are transported by this liquid messenger. Getting adequate blood flow is especially important during the rapid growth of gestation and early childhood – particularly for the brain, the weight of which roughly triples during the last 13 weeks of a typical pregnancy. Any disruption to blood flow during this time could dramatically affect the development of this critical organ.

Now, a new study by Children’s National Health System researchers finds that blood flow to key regions of very premature infants’ brains is altered, providing an early warning sign of disturbed brain maturation well before such injury is visible on conventional imaging. The prospective, observational study was published online Dec. 4, 2017 by The Journal of Pediatrics.

“During the third trimester of pregnancy, the fetal brain undergoes an unprecedented growth spurt. To power that growth, cerebral blood flow increases and delivers the extra oxygen and nutrients needed to nurture normal brain development,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior author of the study. “In full-term pregnancies, these critical brain structures mature inside the protective womb where the fetus can hear the mother and her heartbeat, which stimulates additional brain maturation. For infants born preterm, however, this essential maturation process happens in settings often stripped of such stimuli.”

The challenge: How to capture what goes right or wrong in the developing brains of these very fragile newborns? The researchers relied on arterial spin labeling (ASL) magnetic resonance (MR) imaging, a noninvasive technique that labels the water portion of blood to map how blood flows through infants’ brains in order to describe which regions do or do not receive adequate blood supply. The imaging work can be done without a contrast agent since water from arterial blood itself illuminates the path traveled by cerebral blood.

“In our study, very preterm infants had greater absolute cortical cerebral blood flow compared with full-term infants. Within regions, however, the insula (a region critical to experiencing emotion), anterior cingulate cortex (a region involved in cognitive processes) and auditory cortex (a region involved in processing sound) for preterm infants received a significantly decreased volume of blood, compared with full-term infants. For preterm infants, parenchymal brain injury and the need for cardiac vasopressor support both were correlated with decreased regional CBF,” Limperopoulos adds.

The team studied 98 preterm infants who were born June 2012 to December 2015, were younger than 32 gestational weeks at birth and who weighed less than 1,500 grams. They matched those preemies by gestational age with 104 infants who had been carried to term. The brain MRIs were performed as the infants slept.

Blood flows where it is needed most with areas of the brain that are used more heavily commandeering more oxygen and nutrients. Thus, during brain development, CBF is a good indicator of functional brain maturation since brain areas that are the most metabolically active need more blood.

the cerebral blood flow (CBF) maps, corresponding anatomical image aligned to the CBF map, and the regions of interest examined

This figure represents the cerebral blood flow (CBF) maps, corresponding anatomical image aligned to the CBF map, and the regions of interest examined. The scale indicates the quantitative value of the CBF map and is expressed in mL/100g/min. The data are from a preterm infant scanned at term age without evidence of brain injury. The insula (see black arrows in panel ‘D’) may be particularly vulnerable to the added stresses of the preterm infant’s life outside the womb.
Credit: M. Bouyssi-Kobar, et al., The Journal of Pediatrics.

“The ongoing maturation of the newborn’s brain can be seen in the distribution pattern of cerebral blood flow, with the greatest volume of blood traveling to the brainstem and deep grey matter,” says Marine Bouyssi-Kobar, M.S., the study’s lead author. “Because of the sharp resolution provided by ASL-MR images, our study finds that in addition to the brainstem and deep grey matter, the insula and the areas of the brain responsible for sensory and motor functions are also among the most oxygenated regions. This underscores the critical importance of these brain regions in early brain development. In preterm infants, the insula may be particularly vulnerable to the added stresses of life outside the womb.”

Of note, compromised regional brain structures in adults are implicated in multiple neurodevelopmental disorders. “Altered development of the insula and anterior cingulate cortex in newborns may represent early warning signs of preterm infants at greater risk for long-term neurodevelopmental impairments,” Limperopoulos says.

Research reported in this post was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, MOP-81116; the SickKids Foundation, XG 06-069; and the National Institutes of Health under award number R01 HL116585-01.

Dorothy Bulas

Congratulations to Dorothy Bulas, M.D. – 2017 RSNA Outstanding Educator recipient

Dorothy Bulas

Dorothy Bulas, M.D., section head of ultrasound and fetal imaging at Children’s National Health System, was honored with the RSNA 2017 Outstanding Educator award at the Radiological Society of North America’s (RSNA) Annual Meeting, held November 26 – December 1 in Chicago, Illinois.

The winner of the award is selected annually by the RSNA Board of Directors based on the awardee’s significant contributions and long-term commitment – 15 years or more – to radiologic education.

“In addition to being a talented clinician and an accomplished researcher, Dr. Bulas is an extraordinary teacher who has made tireless contributions to the educational programs of RSNA,” said RSNA President Richard L. Ehman, M.D. “For more than three decades, she has been a passionate and effective advocate for improving pediatric radiology worldwide – especially in poorly served countries – by participating in educational outreach.”

Roberta DeBiasi and Sarah Mulkey

Children’s National experts contribute to new Zika guidelines

Roberta DeBiasi and Sarah Mulkey

Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M. S., and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., members of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program, were among the experts invited to participate in a forum held in Atlanta at CDC headquarters in late August to formulate new Zika recommendations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Oct. 19, 2017 updated guidelines for evaluation of women, fetuses and infants exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy. Although only women with symptoms will now be routinely tested, asymptomatic and symptomatic infants born to these women will still be tested for the Zika virus using blood and urine tests.

Infants who appear normal, whose mothers either had negative Zika results or who had not undergone testing, will not undergo Zika testing. These infants still will undergo a standard evaluation, including a detailed physical exam, hearing screen and routine developmental assessments. The revised Zika guidance includes input from practitioners on the front lines of the Zika epidemic, including Children’s National Health System clinicians.

“These changes in the recommendations for Zika testing should not be interpreted as Zika infection risks subsiding for pregnant women and their infants in the United States. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the limitations of current testing methods – which must occur within a narrow window after Zika exposure – and the poor predictive value of Zika testing right now,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of Children’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. Dr. DeBiasi and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., members of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program, were among the experts invited to participate in the Zika forum held in Atlanta at CDC headquarters in late August to formulate the recommendations.

While all infants will receive a standard evaluation, expanded evaluations that include an ophthalmologic assessment, more detailed hearing evaluation and ultrasound of the newborn’s head will be reserved for infants born to mothers confirmed to be Zika positive or Zika probable, or for infants born with abnormalities potentially consistent with congenital Zika syndrome, regardless of maternal status.

The majority of U.S. infants who have been exposed to Zika in the womb appeared normal at birth, according to CDC registries. Now, the next wave of these normal-appearing babies will receive standard evaluations when they are born, including a newborn hearing screening. At each well-child visit, these infants will receive:

  • A comprehensive physical examination
  • An age-appropriate vision screening
  • Developmental monitoring and screening using validated tools

“This is a natural evolution in the diagnosis and screening strategy now that the peak of the first wave of Zika transmission appears to be over,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “While we continue to evaluate new possible cases of Zika infection among pregnant women in our practice, a sizable proportion of Children’s cases are Zika-exposed infants whose physical exam and neuroimaging appeared normal at birth. Through ongoing monitoring, we hope to learn more about these children’s long-term neurodevelopment outcomes.”

Sarah Mulkey

Fetal MRI plus ultrasound assess Zika-related brain changes

Sarah Mulkey

Magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound provide complementary data needed to assess ongoing changes to the brains of fetuses exposed to Zika in utero, says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

For Zika-affected pregnancies, fetal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in addition to standard ultrasound (US) imaging can better assess potential brain abnormalities in utero, according to research presented by Children’s National Health System during IDWeek 2017. In cases of abnormal brain structure, fetal MRI can reveal more extensive areas of damage to the developing brain than is seen with US.

“MRI and US provide complementary data needed to assess ongoing changes to the brains of fetuses exposed to Zika in utero,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal/neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Health System and lead author of the research paper. “In addition, our study found that relying on ultrasound alone would have given one mother the false assurance that her fetus’ brain was developing normally while the sharper MRI clearly pointed to brain abnormalities.”

As of Sept. 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 1,901 U.S. women were exposed to Zika at some point during their pregnancies but their infants appeared normal at birth. Another 98 U.S. women, however, gave birth to infants with Zika-related birth defects.  And eight more women had pregnancy losses with Zika-related birth defects, according to CDC registries.

The longitudinal neuroimaging study led by Children’s National enrolled 48 pregnant women exposed to the Zika virus in the first or second trimester whose infection was confirmed by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, which detects Zika viral fragments shortly after exposure, and/or Immunoglobulin M testing, which reveals antibodies the body produces to neutralize the virus. Forty-six of the study volunteers live in Barranquilla, Colombia, where Zika infection is endemic. Two women live in the Washington region and were exposed to Zika during travel elsewhere.

All of the women underwent at least one diagnostic imaging session while pregnant, receiving an initial MRI or US at 25.1 weeks’ gestational age. Thirty-six women underwent a second MRI/US imaging pair at roughly 31 weeks’ gestation. Children’s National radiologists read every image.

Three of 48 pregnancies, or 6 percent, were marked by abnormal fetal MRIs:

  • One fetus had heterotopias (clumps of grey matter located at the wrong place) and abnormal cortical indent (a deformation at the outer layer of the cerebrum, a brain region involved in consciousness). The US taken at the same gestational age for this fetus showed its brain was developing normally.
  • Another fetus had parietal encephalocele (an uncommon skull defect) and Chiari malformation Type II (a life-threatening structural defect at the base of the skull and the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance). The US for this fetus also detected these brain abnormalities.
  • The third fetus had a thin corpus callosum (bundle of nerves that connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres), an abnormally developed brain stem, temporal cysts, subependymal heterotopias and general cerebral/cerebellar atrophy. This fetal US showed significant ventriculomegaly (fluid-filled structures in the brain that are too large) and a fetal head circumference that decreased sharply from the 32nd to 36th gestational week, a hallmark of microcephaly.

After they were born, infants underwent a follow-up MRI without sedation and US. For nine infants, these ultrasounds revealed cysts in the choroid plexus (cells that produce cerebrospinal fluid) or germinal matrix (the source for neurons and glial cells that migrate during brain development). And one infant’s US after birth showed lenticulostriate vasculopathy (brain lesions).

“Because a number of factors can trigger brain abnormalities, further studies are needed to determine whether the cystic changes to these infants’ brains are attributable to Zika exposure in the womb or whether some other insult caused these troubling results,” Dr. Mulkey says.

What Children’s has learned about congenital Zika infection

Roberta DeBiasi

Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., outlined lessons learned during a pediatric virology workshop at IDWeek2017, one of three such Zika presentations led by Children’s National research-clinicians during this year’s meeting of pediatric infectious disease specialists.

The Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National Health System provides a range of advanced testing and services for exposed and infected fetuses and newborns. Data that the program has gathered in evaluating and managing Zika-affected pregnancies and births may offer instructive insights to other centers developing similar programs.

The program evaluated 36 pregnant women and their fetuses from January 2016 through May 2017. Another 14 women and their infants were referred to the Zika program for postnatal consultations during that time.

“As the days grow shorter and temperatures drop, we continue to receive referrals to our Zika program, and this is a testament to the critical need it fulfills in the greater metropolitan D.C. region,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-leader of the program. “Our multidisciplinary team now has consulted on 90 dyads (mothers and their Zika-affected fetuses/infants). The lessons we learned about when and how these women were infected and how their offspring were affected by Zika may be instructive to institutions considering launching their own programs.”

Dr. DeBiasi outlined lessons learned during a pediatric virology workshop at IDWeek2017, one of three such Zika presentations led by Children’s National research-clinicians during this year’s meeting of pediatric infectious disease specialists.

“The Zika virus continues to circulate in dozens of nations, from Angola to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Clinicians considering a strategic approach to managing pregnancies complicated by Zika may consider enlisting an array of specialists to attend to infants’ complex care needs, including experts in fetal imaging, pediatric infectious disease, physical therapists, audiologists, ophthalmologists and radiologists skilled at reading serial magnetic resonance images as well as ultrasounds,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “At Children’s we have a devoted Zika hotline to triage patient and family concerns. We provide detailed instructions for referring institutions explaining protocols before and after childbirth, and we provide continuing education for health care professionals.”

Of the 36 pregnant women possibly exposed to Zika during pregnancy seen in the program’s first year, 32 lived in the United States and traveled to countries where Zika virus was circulating. Two women had partners who traveled to Zika hot zones. And two moved to the Washington region from places where Zika is endemic. Including the postnatal cases, 89 percent of patients had been bitten by Zika-tainted mosquitoes, while 48 percent of women could have been exposed to Zika via sex with an infected partner.

Twenty percent of the women were exposed before conception; 46 percent were exposed to Zika in the first trimester of pregnancy; 26 percent were exposed in the second trimester; and 8 percent were exposed in the final trimester. In only six of 50 cases (12 percent) did the Zika-infected individual experience symptoms.

Zika infection can be confirmed by detecting viral fragments but only if the test occurs shortly after infection. Twenty-four of the 50 women (nearly 50 percent) arrived for a Zika consultation outside that 12-week testing window. Eleven women (22 percent) had confirmed Zika infection and another 28 percent tested positive for the broader family of flavivirus infections that includes Zika. Another detection method picks up antibodies that the body produces to neutralize Zika virus. For seven women (14 percent), Zika infection was ruled out by either testing method.

“Tragically, four fetuses had severe Zika-related birth defects,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “Due to the gravity of those abnormalities, two pregnancies were not carried to term. The third pregnancy was carried to term, but the infant died immediately after birth. The fourth pregnancy was carried to term, but that infant survived less than one year.”

Catherine Limperopoulous

Brain impairment in newborns with CHD prior to surgery

Catherine Limperopoulous

Children’s National researchers led by Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., demonstrate for the first time that the brains of high-risk infants show signs of functional impairment before they undergo corrective cardiac surgery.

Newborns with congenital heart disease (CHD) requiring open-heart surgery face a higher risk for neurodevelopmental disabilities, yet prior studies had not examined whether functional brain connectivity is altered in these infants before surgery.

Findings from a Children’s National Health System study of this question suggest the presence of brain dysfunction early in the lives of infants with CHD that may be associated with neurodevelopmental impairments years later.

Using a novel imaging technique, Children’s National researchers demonstrated for the first time that the brains of these high-risk infants already show signs of functional impairment even before they undergo corrective open heart surgery. Looking at the newborns’ entire brain topography, the team found intact global organization – efficient and effective small world networks – yet reduced functional connectivity between key brain regions.

“A robust neural network is critical for neurons to travel to their intended destinations and for the body to carry out nerve cells’ instructions. In this study, we found the density of connections among rich club nodes was diminished, and there was reduced connectivity between critical brain hubs,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior author of the study published online Sept. 28, 2017 in NeuroImage: Clinical. “CHD disrupts how oxygenated blood flows throughout the body, including to the brain. Despite disturbed hemodynamics, infants with CHD still are able to efficiently transfer neural information among neighboring areas of the brain and across distant regions.”

The research team led by Josepheen De Asis-Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., compared whole brain functional connectivity in 82 healthy, full-term newborns and 30 newborns with CHD prior to corrective heart surgery. Conventional imaging had detected no brain injuries in either group. The team used resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fcMRI), a imaging technique that characterizes fluctuating blood oxygen level dependent signals from different regions of the brain, to map the effect of CHD on newborns’ developing brains.

The newborns with CHD had lower birth weights and lower APGAR scores (a gauge of how well brand-new babies fare outside the womb) at one and five minutes after birth. Before the scan, the infants were fed, wrapped snugly in warm blankets, securely positioned using vacuum pillows, and their ears were protected with ear plugs and ear muffs.

While the infants with CHD had intact global network topology, a close examination of specific brain regions revealed functional disturbances in a subnetwork of nodes in newborns with cardiac disease. The subcortical regions were involved in most of those affected connections. The team also found weaker functional connectivity between right and left thalamus (the region that processes and transmits sensory information) and between the right thalamus and the left supplementary motor area (the section of the cerebral cortex that helps to control movement). The regions with reduced functional connectivity depicted by rs-fcMRI match up with regional brain anomalies described in imaging studies powered by conventional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging.

“Global network organization is preserved, despite CHD, and small world brain networks in newborns show a remarkable ability to withstand brain injury early in life,” Limperopoulos adds. “These intact, efficient small world networks bode well for targeting early therapy and rehabilitative interventions to lower the newborns’ risk of developing long-term neurological deficits that can contribute to problems with executive function, motor function, learning and social behavior.”

Children’s National Fetal Medicine Institute hosts 2nd annual International Symposium on the Fetal Brain


The Children’s National Health System Fetal Medicine Institute hosted the 2nd annual International Symposium on the Fetal Brain in August 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Speakers at this year’s symposium focused on the following four areas:

  • Brain Development in an Unsupportive In Utero Environment – Diagnosis and Consequences
  • Supporting Brain Development in the Ex Utero Fetus: How Far Are We From Optimal?
  • Genomic and Epigenomic Mechanisms Underlying Differences in Brain Development
  • The Emergence of Consciousness and Pain Sensation

Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., Director of the Fetal Medicine Institute and Division Chief of Fetal and Transitional Medicine hosted the conference. In his opening remarks Dr. du Plessis noted “Our goal has been to gather together a diverse group from across the spectrum of disciplines focused on the well-being of the fetal brain and to engage all disciplines together.”

Diana-Bianchi-at-ISFB

Diana Bianchi, MD gives her keynote presentation on non-invasive fetal testing at the second annual International Symposium on the Fetal Brain.

Invited, internationally renowned speakers presented on diverse topics, including Diana Bianchi, Director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development who spoke on the “Non-Invasive Fetal Testing Beyond Karyotype: What’s in it for the Fetal Brain?”

A new component to the symposium was the clinically-focused breakfast breakout sessions, created based on feedback from attendees of the 2016 Symposium. Sessions covered varied topics such as “Fetal Ultrasound: the Cornerstone of Fetal Neurodiagnosis,” “The Essentials of Neurogenetic Testing,” “Developing a Transitional Fetal-Neonatal Program” and “Using MRI to Advance Fetal Neurodiagnosis.”

The conference started with an exciting discussion by Alistair Gunn, M.B.Ch.B., Head of the Department of Physiology at the University of Auckland. His presentation “Fetal Heart Rate: What It Does and Does Not Tell Us” explored the considerable body of evidence that essentially all decelerations are mediated by chemoreflex responses to repeated hypoxia and that the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system is the critical regulator of both fetal heart rate and heart rate variation in labor.

Following a voting process from the symposium’s external speakers, the inaugural Andrea Poretti Abstract Award was presented to Katherine Ottolini for her poster titled: Breastmilk Feeds Improve Brain Microstructural Development in Very Premature Infants.

For more information about the sessions and speakers at the 2017 Symposium, please visit our website.

LCModel output from 32 GA baby

Understanding the long-term consequences of prematurity

LCModel output from 32 GA baby

Children’s National Health System researchers processed H1-MRS data using LCModel software to calculate absolute metabolite concentrations for N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA), choline (Cho) and creatine (Cr). Preterm infants had significantly lower cerebellar NAA (p=<0.025) and higher Cho (p=<0.001) when compared with healthy term-equivalent infants. The area of the brain within the red box is the cerebellum, the region of interest for this study.

Premature birth, a condition that affects approximately 10 percent of births in the United States, often is accompanied by health problems ranging from difficulties breathing and eating to long-term neurocognitive delays and disabilities. However, the reasons for these problems have been unclear.

In a study published online Aug. 15, 2017 in Scientific Reports, a team of Children’s National Health System clinician-researchers reports that prematurity is associated with altered metabolite profiles in the infants’ cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls coordination and balance. Pre-term infants in the study had significantly lower levels of a chemical marker of nerve cell integrity and significantly higher concentrations of a chemical marker of cellular membrane turnover.

“These data suggest that interrupting the developing fetal brain’s usual growth plan during gestation – which can occur through early birth, infection or experiencing brain damage – might trigger a compensatory mechanism. The infant’s brain tries to make up for lost time or heal injured tissue by producing a certain type of cells more quickly than it normally would,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior study author. “The more sensitive imaging technique that we used also revealed nerve cell damage from brain injuries extends beyond the site of injury, a finding that contrasts with what is found through conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).”

It has long been clear that prematurity – birth before 37 weeks gestation – is accompanied by a number of immediate and long-term complications, from potential problems breathing and feeding at birth to impairments in hearing and sight that can last throughout an individual’s life.

Neurocognitive developmental delays often accompany pre-term birth, many of which can have long-lasting consequences. Studies have shown that children born prematurely are more likely to struggle in school, have documented learning disabilities and experience significant delays in developing gross and fine motor skills compared with children born at full-term.

Several studies have investigated the root cause of these issues in the cerebrum, the structure that takes up the majority of the brain and is responsible for functions including learning and memory, language and communication, sensory processing and movement. However, the cerebellum – a part of the brain that plays an important role in motor control – has not received as much research attention.

In the new study, Limperopoulos and colleagues used a specialized MRI technique that allowed them to parse out differences in which molecules are present in the cerebellum of full-term infants compared with premature infants. Their findings show a variety of differences that could offer clues to explain developmental differences between these two populations – and potentially identify ways to intervene to improve outcomes.

The researchers recruited 59 premature infants, born at 32 or fewer weeks’ gestation, and 61 healthy, full-term infants. Each baby received a special type of MRI known as proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or H1-MRS, that measures the concentrations of particular molecules in the brain. The full-term infants had these MRIs shortly after birth; the pre-term infants had them at 39 to 41 weeks gestational age, or around the time that they would have been born had the pregnancy continued to term.

Looking specifically at the cerebellum, the researchers found that the pre-term infants overall had significantly lower concentrations of N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA), a marker of the integrity of nerve cells. They also had significantly higher concentrations of choline, a marker of cell membrane integrity and membrane turnover.

Concentrations of creatine, a marker of stores of cellular energy, were about the same overall between the two groups. However, the researchers found that brain injuries, which affected 35 of the pre-term infants but none of the full-term infants, were associated with significantly lower concentrations of NAA, choline and creatine. Having a neonatal infection, which affected 21 of the pre-term infants but none of the full-term ones, was associated with lower NAA and creatine.

The findings could offer insight into exactly what’s happening in the brain when infants are born pre-term and when these vulnerable babies develop infections or their brains become injured – conditions that convey dramatically higher risks for babies born too early, Limperopoulos says. The differences between the full-term babies and the pre-term ones reflect disturbances these cells are experiencing at a biochemical level, she explains.

Limperopoulos and colleagues note that more research will be necessary to connect these findings to what is already known about developmental problems in pre-term infants. Eventually, she says, scientists might be able to use this knowledge to develop treatments that might be able to change the course of brain development in babies born too early, getting them on track with infants born at term.

“We know that the bodies of pre-term infants demonstrate a remarkable ability to catch up with peers who were born at full-term, in terms of weight and height. Our challenge is to ensure that preemies’ brains also have an opportunity to develop as normally as possible to ensure optimal long-term outcomes,” Limperopoulos says.

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.

Zhe Han, PhD

Lab led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., receives $1.75 million from NIH

Zhe Han, PhD

A new four-year NIH grant will enable Zhe Han, Ph.D., to carry out the latest stage in the detective work to determine how histone-modifying genes regulate heart development and the molecular mechanisms of congenital heart disease caused by these genetic mutations.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $1.75 million to a research lab led by Zhe Han, Ph.D., principal investigator and associate professor in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, in order to build models of congenital heart disease (CHD) that are tailored to the unique genetic sequences of individual patients.

Han was the first researcher to create a Drosophila melanogaster model to efficiently study genes involved in CHD, the No.1 birth defect experienced by newborns, based on sequencing data from patients with the heart condition. While surgery can fix more than 90 percent of such heart defects, an ongoing challenge is how to contend with the remaining cases since mutations of a vast array of genes could trigger any individual CHD case.

In a landmark paper published in 2013 in the journal Nature, five different institutions sequenced the genomes of more than 300 patients with CHD and their families, identifying 200 mutated genes of interest.

“Even though mutations of these genes were identified from patients with CHD, these genes cannot be called ‘CHD genes’ since we had no in vivo evidence to demonstrate these genes are involved in heart development,” Han says. “A key question to be answered: How do we efficiently test a large number of candidate disease genes in an experimental model system?”

In early 2017, Han published a paper in Elife providing the answer to that lingering question. By silencing genes in a fly model of human CHD, the research team confirmed which genes play important roles in development. The largest group of genes that were validated in Han’s study were histone-modifying genes. (DNA winds around the histone protein, like thread wrapped around a spool, to become packed into a higher-level structure.)

The new four-year NIH grant will enable Han to carry out the next stage of the detective work to determine precisely how histone-modifying genes regulate heart development. In order to do so, his group will silence the function of histone-modifying genes one by one, to study their function in the fly heart development and to identify the key histone-modifying genes for heart development. And because patients with CHD can have more than one mutated gene, he will silence multiple genes simultaneously to determine how those genes work in partnership to cause heart development to go awry.

By the end of the four-year research project, Han hopes to be able to identify all of the histone-modified genes that play pivotal roles in development of the heart in order to use those genes to tailor make personalized fly models corresponding to individual patient’s genetic makeup.

Parents with mutations linked to CHD are likely to pass heart disease risk to the next generation. One day, those parents could have an opportunity to sequence their genes to learn the degree of CHD risk their offspring face.

“Funding this type of basic research enables us to understand which genes are important for heart development and how. With this knowledge, in the near future we could predict the chances of a baby being born with CHD, and cure it by using gene-editing approaches to prevent passing disease to the next generation,” Han says.