Spectral data shine light on placenta

preemie baby

A research project led by Subechhya Pradhan, Ph.D., aims to shed light on metabolism of the placenta, a poorly understood organ, and characterize early biomarkers of fetal congenital heart disease.

The placenta serves as an essential intermediary between a pregnant mother and her developing fetus, transporting in life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients, ferrying out waste and serving as interim lungs, kidneys and liver as those vital organs develop in utero.

While the placenta plays a vital role in supporting normal pregnancies, it remains largely a black box to science. A research project led by Subechhya Pradhan, Ph.D., and partially funded by a Clinical and Translational Science Institute Research Award aims to shed light on placenta metabolism and characterize possible early biomarkers of impaired placental function in fetal congenital heart disease (CHD), the most common type of birth defect.

“There is a huge information void,” says Pradhan, a research faculty member of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System. “Right now, we do not have very much information about placenta metabolism in vivo. This would be one of the first steps to understand what is actually going on in the placenta at a biochemical level as pregnancies progress.”

The project Pradhan leads will look at the placentas of 30 women in the second and third trimesters of healthy, uncomplicated pregnancies and will compare them with placentas of 30 pregnant women whose fetuses have been diagnosed with CHD. As volunteers for a different study, the women are already undergoing magnetic resonance imaging, which takes detailed images of the placenta’s structure and architecture. The magnetic resonance spectroscopy scans that Pradhan will review show the unique chemical fingerprints of key metabolites: Choline, lipids and lactate.

Choline, a nutrient the body needs to preserve cellular structural integrity, is a marker of cell membrane turnover. Fetuses with CHD have higher concentrations of lactate in the brain, a telltale sign of a shortage of oxygen. Pradhan’s working hypothesis is that there may be differing lipid profiles and lactate levels in the placenta in pregnancies complicated by CHD.  The research team will extract those metabolite concentrations from the spectral scans to describe how they evolve in both groups of pregnant women.

“While babies born with CHD can undergo surgery as early as the first few days (or sometimes hours) of life to correct their hearts, unfortunately, we still see a high prevalence of neurodevelopmental impairments in infants with CHD. This suggests that neurological dysfunctional may have its origin in fetal life,” Pradhan says.

Having an earlier idea of which fetuses with CHD are most vulnerable has the potential to pinpoint which pregnancies need more oversight and earlier intervention.

Placenta spectral data traditionally have been difficult to acquire because the pregnant mother moves as does the fetus, she adds. During the three-minute scans, the research team will try to limit excess movement using a technique called respiratory gating, which tells the machine to synchronize image acquisition so it occurs in rhythm with the women’s breathing.

Suresh Magge

Sudden blindness leads to unusual diagnosis

Suresh Magge

Suresh N. Magge, M.D., and his colleagues at Children’s National recently published the details of an unusual case of advanced moyamoya disease in the journal Stroke.

When Children’s National Health System Neurosurgeon Suresh N. Magge, M.D., met his new patient, the 16-year-old had suddenly lost her vision in both eyes.

To discover the reason for this abrupt loss of vision, her doctors ran a battery of tests. An ophthalmologist found no problems with her eyes.  Her optic nerves, which run signals generated from the eyes to the brain, also appeared to work normally. However, a computerized tomography scan and magnetic resonance imaging showed the unmistakable signs of a stroke in her occipital lobe, the portion of the brain responsible for interpreting signals relayed from the optic nerves.

“Her brain basically wasn’t seeing what her eyes saw,” Dr. Magge explains.

Delving deeper, her Children’s National care team found the reason why their young patient had suffered a stroke by using a cerebral angiogram, an imaging test that shows the blood vessels in and around the brain. The teen had moyamoya disease, a rare condition that causes blood vessels in the brain to narrow, often leading otherwise healthy adults and children to have strokes.

According to the National Institutes of Health, moyamoya is Japanese for “puff of smoke,” so named because of the telltale signs this condition presents on an angiogram. When arteries in the brain narrow, brain tissue becomes “thirsty” for more blood, Dr. Magge explains, leading its cells to produce chemicals that prompt new blood vessels to grow. These new collateral blood vessels often grow in a thin tangle that looks like smoke on an angiogram. Generally, however, they do not supply sufficient oxygenated blood to meet the brain’s needs, leaving it starved for oxygen. Eventually, the blood supply can get so low that patients suffer transient ischemic attacks, “mini-strokes” that temporarily deprive the brain tissue of oxygen, or full-blown strokes typically characterized by weakness, speech problems, facial paralysis or other problems.

Dr. Magge’s patient had little warning before her stroke occurred. The first major symptom that led her to seek medical attention was abrupt blindness, which Dr. Magge says is a highly unusual occurrence for a moyamoya diagnosis. That’s why he and colleagues decided to publish the details of her case as a teaching report April 14, 2017 in the journal Stroke.

The Children’s National co-authors wrote that once their patient was diagnosed with a stroke due to advanced moyamoya disease, with blood vessels severely narrowed throughout her brain, the first order of business was stabilizing her symptoms and making sure she did not have further strokes. Her blood pressure was stabilized, and she was started on aspirin therapy to decrease her risk of further strokes. She took time to recover as much as possible from her original stroke.

A few weeks later, Dr. Magge and his neurosurgery colleagues performed a type of surgery to revascularize – or restore blood flow – to areas of the brain that were still healthy but at risk of having subsequent strokes. The surgical procedure, known as pial synangiosis, reconfigures the brain’s blood vessels to make sure that these vulnerable areas of the brain have a sufficient blood supply.

Years later, Dr. Magge says, his patient is doing well, except for the original blindness, a permanent consequence of the stroke to her occipital lobe before her diagnosis. She has not had new strokes since the revascularization surgery. She will need aspirin therapy and periodic neurological checkups for the rest of her life, Dr. Magge explains, to make sure that the blood supply to her brain remains stable.

Children’s experts use a team approach to treat patients with complex care needs: Neurologists, neurosurgeons, intensivists, hematologists, anesthesiologists, neuroradiologists and nurses leverage their combined expertise with moyamoya disease to treat the complexities of this condition.

“A team approach is essential to deliver the best outcomes to children with life-changing diseases,” Dr. Magge says. “We try to help kids get back to living full and healthy lives.”

zika virus

Will the Zika epidemic re-emerge in 2017?

Anthony Fauci

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, discussed the possibility of a reemergence of Zika virus at Children’s National Research and Education Week.

Temperatures are rising, swelling the population of Aedes mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus and prompting an anxious question: Will the Zika epidemic re-emerge in 2017?

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sketched out contrasting scenarios. Last year in Puerto Rico, at least 13 percent of residents were infected with Zika, “a huge percentage of the population to get infected in any one outbreak,” Dr. Fauci says. But he quickly adds: “That means that 87 percent of the population” did not get infected. When the chikungunya virus swept through the Caribbean during an earlier outbreak, it did so in multiple waves. “We are bracing for a return of Zika, but we shall see what happens.” Dr. Fauci says.

When it comes to the continental United States, however, previous dengue and chikungunya outbreaks were limited to southern Florida and Texas towns straddling the Mexican border. Domestic Zika transmission last year behaved in much the same fashion.

“Do we think we’re going to get an outbreak [of Zika] that is disseminated throughout the country? The answer is no,” Dr. Fauci adds. “We’re not going to see a major Puerto Rico-type outbreak in the continental United States.”

Dr. Fauci’s remarks were delivered April 24 to a standing-room-only auditorium as part of Research and Education Week, an annual celebration of the cutting-edge research and innovation happening every day at Children’s National. He offered a sweeping, fact-filled summary of Zika’s march across the globe: The virus was first isolated from a primate placed in a treehouse within Uganda’s Zika forest to intentionally become infected; Zika lurked under the radar for the first few decades, causing non-descript febrile illness; it bounced from country to country, causing isolated outbreaks; then, it transformed into an infectious disease of international concern when congenital Zika infection was linked to severe neural consequences for babies born in Brazil.

zika virus

Zika virus lurked under the radar for several decades, causing non-descript febrile illness; it bounced from country to country, resulting in isolated outbreaks; then, it transformed into an infectious disease of international concern.

“I refer to Brazil and Zika as the perfect storm,” Dr. Fauci told attendees. “You have a country that is a large country with a lot of people, some pockets of poverty and economic depression –  such as in the northeastern states –  without good health care there, plenty of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and, importantly, a totally immunologically naive population. They had never seen Zika before. The right mosquitoes. The right climate. The right people. The right immunological status. And then, you have the explosion in Brazil.”

In Brazil, 139 to 175 babies were born each year with microcephaly – a condition characterized by a smaller than normal skull – from 2010 to 2014. From 2015 through 2016, that sobering statistic soared to 5,549 microcephaly cases, 2,366 of them lab-confirmed as caused by Zika.

Microcephaly “was the showstopper that changed everything,” says Dr. Fauci. “All of a sudden, [Zika] went from a relatively trivial disease to a disease that had dire consequences if a mother was infected, particularly during the first trimester.”

As Zika infections soared, ultimately affecting more than 60 countries, the virus surprised researchers and clinicians a number of times, by:

  • Being spread via sex
  • Being transmitted via blood transfusion, a finding from Brazil that prompted the Food and Drug Administration to recommend testing for all U.S. donated blood and blood products
  • Decimating developing babies’ neural stem cells and causing a constellation of congenital abnormalities, including vision problems and contractions to surviving infants’ arms and legs
  • Causing Guillain-Barré syndrome
  • Triggering transient hearing loss
  • Causing myocarditis, heart failure and arrhythmias

When it comes to the U.S. national response, Dr. Fauci says one of the most crucial variables is how quickly a vaccine becomes available to respond to the emerging outbreak. For Zika, the research community was able to sequence the virus and launch a Phase I trial in about three months, “the quickest time frame from identification to trial in the history of all vaccinology,” he adds.

Zika is a single-stranded, enveloped RNA virus that is closely related to dengue, West Nile, Japanese encephalitis and Yellow fever viruses, which gives the NIH and others racing to produce a Zika vaccine a leg up. The Yellow fever vaccine, at 99 percent effectiveness, is one of the world’s most effective vaccines.

“I think we will wind up with an effective vaccine. I don’t want to be over confident,” Dr. Fauci  says. “The reason I say I believe that we will is because [Zika is] a flavivirus, and we have been able to develop effective flavivirus vaccines. Remember, Yellow fever is not too different from Zika.”

Sarah Mulkey Columbia Zika Study

Damage may lurk in “normal” Zika-exposed brains

Sarah Mulkey Columbia Zika Study

An international study that includes Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., aims to answer one of the most vexing questions about Zika: If babies’ brains appear “normal” at birth, have they survived Zika exposure in the womb with few neurological repercussions? Dr. Mulkey presented preliminary findings at PAS2017.

It has been well established by researchers, including scientists at Children’s National Health System, that the Zika virus is responsible for a slew of birth defects – such as microcephaly, other brain malformations and retinal damage – in babies of infected mothers. But how the virus causes these often devastating effects, and who exactly is affected, has not been explained fully.

Also unknown is whether exposed babies that appear normal at birth are truly unaffected by the virus or have hidden problems that might surface later. The majority of babies born to Zika-infected mothers in the United States appear to have no evidence of Zika-caused birth defects, but that’s no guarantee that the virus has not caused lingering damage.

Recently, Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., made a trip to Colombia, where Children’s National researchers are collaborating on a clinical study. There, she tested Zika-affected babies’ motor skills as they sat, stood and lay facing upward and downward. The international study aims to answer one of the most vexing questions about Zika: If babies’ brains appear “normal” at birth, have they survived Zika exposure in the womb with few neurological repercussions?

“We don’t know the long-term neurological consequences of having Zika if your brain looks normal,” says Dr. Mulkey, a fetal-neonatal neurologist who is a member of Children’s Congenital Zika Virus Program. “That is what’s so scary, the uncertainty about long-term outcomes.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 10 pregnancies across the United States with laboratory-confirmed Zika virus infection results in birth defects in the fetus or infant. For the lion’s share of Zika-affected pregnancies, then, babies’ long-term prospects remain a mystery.

“This is a huge number of children to be impacted and the impact, as we understand, has the potential to be pretty significant,” Dr. Mulkey adds.

Dr. Mulkey, the lead author, presented the research group’s preliminary findings during the 2017 annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS). The presentation was one of several that focused on the Zika virus. Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National, organized two invited symposia devoted to the topic of Zika: Clinical perspectives and knowledge gaps; and the science of Zika, including experimental models of disease and vaccines. Dr. DeBiasi’s presentation included an overview of the 68 Zika-exposed or infected women and infants seen thus far by Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program.

“As the world’s largest pediatric research meeting, PAS2017 is an ideal setting for panelists to provide comprehensive epidemiologic and clinical updates about the emergence of Congenital Zika Syndrome and to review the pathogenesis of infection as it relates to the fetal brain,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “With temperatures already rising to levels that support spread of the Aedes mosquito, it is imperative for pediatricians around the world to share the latest research findings to identify the most effective interventions.”

As one example, Dr. Mulkey’s research sought to evaluate the utility of using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate fetal brain abnormalities in 48 babies whose mothers had confirmed Zika infection during pregnancy. Forty-six of the women/infant pairs enrolled in the prospective study are Colombian, and two are Washington, D.C. women who were exposed during travel to a Zika hot zone.

The women were infected with Zika during all three trimesters and experienced symptoms at a mean gestational age of 8.4 weeks. The first fetal MRIs were performed as early as 18 weeks’ gestation. Depending upon the gestational age when they were enrolled in the study, the participants had at least one fetal MRI as well as serial ultrasounds. Thirty-six fetuses had a second fetal MRI at about 31.1 gestational weeks. An experienced pediatric neuroradiologist evaluated the images.

Among the 48 study participants, 45 had “normal” fetal MRIs.

Three fetuses exposed to Zika in the first or second trimester had abnormal fetal MRIs:

  • One had heterotopia and an early, abnormal fold on the surface of the brain, indications that neurons did not migrate to their anticipated destination during brain development. This pregnancy was terminated at 23.9 gestational weeks.
  • One had parietal encephalocele, a rare birth defect that results in a sac-like protrusion of the brain through an opening in the skull. According to the CDC, this defect affects one in 12,200 births, or 340 babies, per year. It is not known if this rare finding is related to Zika infection.
  • One had a thin corpus callosum, dysplastic brainstem, heterotopias, significant ventriculomegaly and generalized cerebral/cerebellar atrophy.

“Fetal brain MRI detected early structural brain changes in fetuses exposed to the Zika virus in the first and second trimester,” Dr. Mulkey says. “The vast majority of fetuses exposed to Zika in our study had normal fetal MRI, however. Our ongoing study, underwritten by the Thrasher Research Fund, will evaluate their long-term neurodevelopment.”

Adré J. du Plessis, MB.Ch.B., M.P.H., director of the Fetal Medicine Institute and senior author of the paper, notes that this group “is a very important cohort to follow as long as Dr. Mulkey’s funding permits. We know that microcephaly is among the more devastating side effects caused by Zika exposure in utero. Unanswered questions remain about Zika’s impact on hearing, vision and cognition for a larger group of infants. Definitive answers only will come with long-term follow-up.”

Many of the Colombian families live in Sabanalarga, a relatively rural, impoverished area with frequent rain, leaving pockets of fresh water puddles that the mosquito that spreads Zika prefers, Dr. Mulkey adds. Families rode buses for hours for access to fetal MRI technology, which is not common in Colombia.

“The mothers are worried about their babies. They want to know if their babies are doing OK,” she says.

Boy and Mom with Doctor

Straightening out testicular torsion care

Boy and Mom with Doctor

A new collaborative accelerated care pathway for testicular torsion assessment and treatment may save critical time between diagnosis and intervention.

The clock starts ticking for a child with testicular torsion as soon as the pain starts. To increase the likelihood of successfully salvaging the twisted testicle and spermatic cord, surgical intervention – which involves restoring blood flow to the testis – should ideally occur within six hours from the onset of pain.

That’s six hours for a parent to identify that there is a problem, bring a child to the emergency department (ED) and go through all the steps required to get the child to the operating room. This process starts with an emergency physician, who probably doesn’t see many cases of this relatively rare condition, being able to identify the potential issue and contact the pediatric urologist on call. Next, diagnostic imaging orders need to be placed and actual imaging needs to occur for the diagnosis to be made. Finally, the patient needs to be moved to the pre-operative area, assessed by the anesthesia team and then taken to surgery.

In April 2016, the Division of Urology at Children’s National launched a new, accelerated care pathway for testicular torsion assessment and treatment that was developed collaboratively with the Emergency Department, Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, the Department of Anesthesiology, and the peri-operative and operating room team.

“What stood out to us when we looked at the total time from identifying the problem to getting to surgery, was the length of time from when the diagnosis was made in the emergency department to the operating room,” says Tanya Davis, M.D., a pediatric urologist who led this new initiative along with Harry Rushton, Jr., M.D., chief of the Division of Urology. “It was an area where we could easily identify and streamline the process to accelerate the time for a patient to get from arrival in the ED to the surgical suite.”

Now, when a patient presents in the emergency department with the symptoms of testicular torsion, there is a straightforward path mapped out for the physician. “Who you need to talk to, how to reach them, relevant phone numbers, details on when to communicate to the attending physician, the ideal order of activities, the ability for residents to quickly transport the patient rather than waiting for hospital transport to surgery, and, most important, making it clear to everyone involved that this condition is a true emergency when every second matters,” Dr. Davis adds.

Torsion ED to OR Graph

Analysis of the streamlined care pathway, which emphasizes communication that the condition is a true emergency, has improved time from ED to OR within target ranges.

Since the initiative’s launch, 21 cases, from referrals and direct diagnosis, have come into the ED. The new protocol is working efficiently, reducing the mean time from the ED to the OR by more than an hour, now averaging below the team’s target goal of less than 2.5 hours from ED arrival to the OR.

Though salvage rates have not improved yet, the team will continue to collect data and monitor the impact of the accelerated pathway. Additionally, Dr. Davis says that a significant need remains for referring emergency and primary care physicians, as well as parents, to understand the condition and its need for urgent treatment. Children’s National urologists are developing handouts for both physicians and families to help raise awareness.

The hope is that more general knowledge of testicular torsion will allow parents, primary care doctors and emergency department staff to expedite diagnosis when a child complains of scrotal pain or has visible discoloration, further reducing the time from onset of pain to successful intervention. With such a short window of time for treatment, the accelerated care pathway is showing promising results.

Karun Sharma, M.D., poses with two patients

Treating osteoid osteoma with MR-HIFU

Karun Sharma, M.D., poses with two patients

Karun Sharma, M.D., poses with two patients who participated in the MR-HIFU trial for pediatric osteoid osteoma.

Doctors from the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation and surgeons from Children’s National are the first in the U.S. to use Magnetic Resonance-Guided High-intensity Focused Ultrasound (MR-HIFU) to treat pediatric osteoid osteoma.

The trial, led by Principal Investigator Karun Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Interventional Radiology at Children’s National, began in 2015 and is demonstrating early success in establishing the safety and feasibility of noninvasive MR-HIFU as an alternative to the current, more invasive approaches to remove tumor tissue.

Osteoid osteoma is a painful, but benign, bone tumor that commonly occurs in children and young adults. Removal generally requires orthopaedic surgery to scrape the tumor from the bone or CT (computerized tomography) image-guided radiofrequency ablation (RFA), which is less invasive than surgery but is associated with ionizing radiation exposure and requires drilling through muscle and soft tissue into bone.

MR-HIFU, on the other hand, is a precise and controlled method that does not require a scalpel or needle, greatly reducing the risk of complications, including infections and bone fractures. Even better, it promises reduced procedure time, typically an hour or less.

“Our team set out to provide a noninvasive and radiation free treatment option for children with osteoid osteoma and our pilot feasibility and safety trial is almost completed. We have treated 9 patients and we’re very pleased with the success of the treatments so far. Although follow up will continue for another year, results to date that show that MR-HIFU may be a completely non-invasive and radiation free treatment for osteoid osteoma,” Dr. Sharma says. “Several of the children we treated were very active prior to the onset of their tumor, one a soccer player and the other a swimmer, but because of pain from the tumor, they were unable to enjoy their favorite activities, until now.”

“The use of MR-HIFU ablation of osteoid osteoma is a perfect example of our mission in the Sheikh Zayed Institute to make pediatric surgery more precise and less invasive,” adds Peter Kim, M.D., C.M., Ph.D., Vice President of the Sheikh Zayed Institute, who leads the Image Guided Non-Invasive Therapeutic Energy (IGNITE) program.

IGNITE is a joint clinical and research collaboration between the Sheikh Zayed Institute and the Divisions of Radiology, Oncology, Surgery, and Anesthesiology at Children’s National. MR-HIFU is also being used to treat pediatric refractory soft tissue tumors, a first-in-the-world clinical trial that is a collaboration between Children’s National and the NIH Center for Interventional Oncology directed by Bradford Wood, MD. Additionally, the IGNITE team has started preliminary work to explore applications of MR-HIFU for noninvasive ablation of growth plates and pediatric solid tumors.

In addition to Drs. Sharma and Kim, the team for the ablation of osteoid osteoma clinical trial includes: AeRang Kim, MD, PhD, pediatric oncologist; Matthew Oetgen, M.D., Division Chief of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine; Kaleb Friend, M.D., pediatric orthopedic surgeon; Pavel Yarmolenko, Ph.D., Haydar Celik, Ph.D., and Avinash Eranki, biomedical engineers; Viktoriya Beskin, MR technologist; and Janish Patel, M.D., and Domiciano Santos, M.D., pediatric anesthesiologists.

Dr. Keating and Abigail

Multidisciplinary approach to hydrocephalus care

Reflective of the myriad symptoms and complications that can accompany hydrocephalus, a multidisciplinary team at Children’s National works with patients and families for much of childhood.

The Doppler image on the oversized computer screen shows the path taken by blood as it flows through the newborn’s brain, with bright blue distinguishing blood moving through the middle cerebral artery toward the frontal lobe and bright red depicting blood coursing away. Pitch black zones indicate ventricles, cavities through which cerebrospinal fluid usually flows and where hydrocephalus can get its start.

The buildup of excess cerebrospinal fluid in the brain can begin in the womb and can be detected by fetal magnetic resonance imaging. Hydrocephalus also can crop up after birth due to trauma to the head, an infection, a brain tumor or bleeding in the brain, according to the National Institutes of Health. An estimated 1 to 2 per 1,000 newborns have hydrocephalus at birth.

When parents learn of the hydrocephalus diagnosis, their first question tends to be “Is my child going to be OK?” says Suresh Magge, M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s National Health System.

“We have a number of ways to treat hydrocephalus. It is one of the most common conditions that pediatric neurosurgeons treat,” Dr. Magge adds.

Unlike fluid build-up elsewhere in the body where there are escape routes, with hydrocephalus spinal fluid becomes trapped in the brain. To remove it, surgeons typically implant a flexible tube called a shunt that drains excess fluid into the abdomen, an interim stop before it is flushed away. Another surgical technique, called an endoscopic third ventriculostomy has the ability to drain excess fluid without inserting a shunt, but it only works for select types of hydrocephalus, Dr. Magge adds.

For the third year, Dr. Magge is helping to organize the Hydrocephalus Education Day on Feb. 25, a free event that offers parents an opportunity to learn more about the condition.

Reflective of the myriad symptoms and complications that can accompany hydrocephalus, such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy, cortical vision impairment and global delays, a multidisciplinary team at Children’s National works with patients and families for much of childhood.

Neuropsychologist Yael Granader, Ph.D., works with children ages 4 and older who have a variety of developmental and medical conditions. Granader is most likely to see children and adolescents with hydrocephalus once they become medically stable in order to assist in devising a plan for school support services and therapeutic interventions. Her assessments can last an entire day as she administers a variety of tasks that evaluate how the child thinks and learns, such as discerning patterns, assembling puzzles, defining words, and listening to and remembering information.

Neuropsychologists work with schools in order to help create the most successful academic environment for the child. For example, some children may struggle to visually track across a page accurately while reading; providing a bookmark to follow beneath the line is a helpful and simple accommodation to put in place. Support for physical limitations also are discussed with schools in order to incorporate adaptive physical education or to allow use of an elevator in school.

“Every child affected by hydrocephalus is so different. Every parent should know that their child can learn,” Granader says. “We’re going to find the best, most supportive environment for them. We are with them on their journey and, every few years, things will change. We want to be there to help with emerging concerns.”

Another team member, Justin Burton, M.D., a pediatric rehabilitation specialist, says rehabilitation medicine’s “piece of the puzzle is doing whatever I can to help the kids function better.” That means dressing, going to the bathroom, eating and walking independently. With babies who have stiff, tight muscles, that can mean helping them through stretches, braces and medicine management to move muscles smoothly in just the way their growing bodies want. Personalized care plans for toddlers can include maintaining a regular sleep-wake cycle, increasing attention span and strengthening such developmental skills as walking, running and climbing stairs. For kids 5 and older, the focus shifts more to academic readiness, since those youths’ “full-time job” is to become great students, Dr. Burton says.

The area of the hospital where children work on rehabilitation is an explosion of color and sounds, including oversized balance balls of varying dimensions in bright primary colors, portable basketball hoops with flexible rims at multiple heights, a set of foam stairs, parallel bars, a climbing device that looks like the entry to playground monkey bars and a chatterbox toy that lets a patient know when she has opened and closed the toy’s doors correctly.

“We end up taking care of these kids for years and years,” he adds. “I always love seeing the kids get back to walking and talking and getting back to school. If we can get them back out in the world and they’re doing things just like every other kid, that’s success.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Magge says research continues to expand the range of interventions and to improve outcomes for patients with hydrocephalus, including:

  • Fluid dynamics of cerebrospinal fluid
  • Optimal ways to drain excess fluid
  • Improving understanding of why shunts block
  • Definitively characterizing post-hemorrhagic ventricular dilation.

Unlike spina bifida, which sometimes can be corrected in utero at some health institutions, hydrocephalus cannot be corrected in the womb. “While we have come a long way in treating hydrocephalus, there is still a lot of work to be done. We continue to learn more about hydrocephalus with the aim of continually improving treatments,” Dr. Magge says.

During a recent office visit, 5-year-old Abagail’s head circumference had measured ¼ centimeter of growth, an encouraging trend, Robert Keating, M.D., Children’s Chief of Neurosurgery, tells the girl’s mother, Melissa J. Kopolow McCall. According to Kopolow McCall, who co-chairs the Hydrocephalus Association DC Community Network, it is “hugely” important that Children’s National infuses its clinical care with the latest research insights. “I have to have hope that she is not going to be facing a lifetime of brain surgery, and the research is what gives me the hope.”

pregnancy

New Children’s National and Inova collaboration

pregnancy

A new research collaboration will streamline completion of retrospective and prospective research studies, shedding light on myriad conditions that complicate pregnancies.

A new three-year, multi-million dollar research and education collaboration in maternal, fetal and neonatal medicine aims to improve the health of pregnant women and their children. The partnership between Children’s National Health System and Inova will yield a major, nationally competitive research and academic program in these areas that will leverage the strengths of both health care facilities and enhance the quality of care available for these vulnerable populations.

The collaboration will streamline completion of retrospective and prospective research studies, shedding light on a number of conditions that complicate pregnancies. It is one of several alliances between the two institutions aimed at improving the health and well-being of children in Northern Virginia and throughout the region.

“The Washington/Northern Virginia region has long had the capability to support a major, nationally competitive research and academic program in maternal and fetal medicine,” says Adre du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., Director of the Fetal Medicine Institute at Children’s National and a co-Principal Investigator for this partnership. “The Children’s National/Inova maternal-fetal-neonatal research education program will fill this critical void.

“This new partnership will help to establish a closer joint education program between the two centers, working with the OB/Gyn residents at Inova and ensuring their involvement in Children’s National educational programs and weekly fetal case review meetings,” Dr. du Plessis adds.

Larry Maxwell, M.D., Chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus and a co-Principal Investigator for the collaboration, further emphasizes that “Inova’s experience in caring for women and children — combined with genomics- and proteomics-based research — will synergize with Children National’s leadership in neonatal pediatrics, placental biology and fetal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to create an unprecedented research consortium. This will set the stage for developing clinically actionable interventions for mothers and babies in metropolitan District of Columbia.”

Children’s National, ranked No. 3 nationally in neonatology, has expertise in pediatric neurology, fetal and neonatal neurology, fetal and pediatric cardiology, infectious diseases, genetics, neurodevelopment and dozens of additional pediatric medical subspecialties. Its clinicians are national leaders in next-generation imaging techniques, such as MRI. Eighteen specialties and 50 consultants evaluate more than 700 cases per year through its Fetal Medicine Institute. In mid-2016, Children’s National created a Congenital Zika Virus Program to serve as a dedicated resource for referring clinicians and pregnant women. The hospital performs deliveries in very high-risk, complex situations, but does not offer a routine labor and delivery program.

Inova Fairfax Medical Campus is home to both Inova Women’s Hospital and Inova Children’s Hospital. Inova Women’s Hospital is the region’s most comprehensive and highest-volume women’s hospital — delivering more than 10,000 babies in 2016. Inova Children’s Hospital serves as Northern Virginia’s children’s hospital —providing expert care in pediatric and fetal cardiology, cardiac surgery, genetics, complex general surgery, neurology, neurosurgery and other medical and surgical specialties. Its 108-bed Level IV neonatal intensive care unit is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the nation. Inova’s Translational Medicine Institute includes a genomics lab, as well as a research Institute focused on studies designed to build genetic models that help answer questions about individual disease. Each of these specialties is integrated into the Inova Fetal Care Center — which serves as a connection point between Inova Women’s and Children’s Hospitals. The Inova Fetal Care Center provides complex care coordination for women expecting infants with congenital anomalies or with other fetal concerns. Because Inova Women’s Hospital and Inova Children’s Hospital are co-located, women are able to deliver their babies in the same building where their children will receive care.

The research collaboration will support research assistants; tissue technicians; a placental biologist; as well as support for biomedical engineering, fetal-neonatal imaging, telemedicine, regulatory affairs and database management. The joint research projects that will take place under its auspices include:

  • Fetal growth restriction (FGR), which occurs when the failing placenta cannot support the developing fetus adequately. FGR is a major cause of stillbirth and death, and newborns who survive face numerous risks for multiple types of ailments throughout their lives. A planned study will use quantitative MRI to identify signs of abnormal brain development in pregnancies complicated by FGR.
  • Placental abnormalities, including placenta accreta. A planned study will combine quantitative MRI studies on the placenta during the third trimester and other points in time with formal histopathology to identify MRI signals of placenta health and disease.
  • Microcephaly, a condition that is characterized by babies having a much smaller head size than expected due to such factors as interrupted brain development or brain damage during pregnancy. While the global Zika virus epidemic has heightened awareness of severe microcephaly cases, dozens of pregnancies in the region in recent years have been complicated by the birth defect for reasons other than Zika infection. A planned study will examine the interplay between MRI within the womb and head circumference and weight at birth to examine whether brain volume at birth correlates with the baby’s developmental outcomes.

Using fMRI for assessment prior to neurosurgery

For more than 20 years, Children’s National has explored the use of non-invasive fMRI as an alternative to more invasive testing to assess children’s language and memory.

A new Practice Guideline Summary published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, contains the first complete, objective assessment of available data on the efficacy of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess baseline language and memory, brain hemisphere dominance and to predict postsurgical impacts prior to surgery in patients with epilepsy.

According to contributing author William D. Gaillard, M.D., chief of Child Neurology, Epilepsy and Neurophysiology, and director of the Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program at Children’s National Health System, the report outlines several cases in which fMRI presents an effective alternative to the current standard of care, intracarotid amobarbital procedure (IAP). In IAP, medication is injected through the carotid artery to isolate one hemisphere of the brain at a time, followed by the patient performing memory or language tasks. The approach requires catheterization via a major artery. While minimally invasive, the procedure still carries the standard risks of vascular catheter procedures and requires recovery time.

“This publication took six years to complete,” Dr. Gaillard notes, “but we are happy to finally have the practice parameters that will make the case for the use of fMRI in an evidence-based way.”

Though the Practice Guidelines focus on adults, the evidence assessment included all available pediatric data as well, says Dr. Gaillard. A great deal of that data were contributed by Children’s National faculty, who lead the nation in clinical applications of fMRI. More than 20 years ago, Dr. Gaillard and his team began studying fMRI as a viable alternative to IAP to collect accurate language assessments in children, particularly those with epilepsy. Today, Children’s National is at the forefront of clinical application of fMRI, having performed about 1,000 pediatric assessments in the last two decades — more than nearly every other institution.

An 11-member panel of international experts conducted the analyses for the Practice Guidelines. Overall, the report indicates:

  • fMRI is a viable option for measuring lateralized language functions in place of IAP in medial temporal lobe epilepsy, temporal epilepsy in general or extratemporal epilepsy.
  • Evidence was insufficient to recommend fMRI over IAP for patients with temporal neocortical epilepsy or temporal tumors.
  • Pre-surgical fMRI can serve as an adequate alternative to IAP memory testing for predicting verbal memory outcome.

In closing, the authors also explicitly recommend that clinicians carefully advise every patient of the risks and benefits of both fMRI and IAP before recommending either approach.

Related resources: Use of fMRI in the presurgical evaluation of patients with epilepsy

Setting a baseline for healthy brain development

Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., and colleagues performed the largest magnetic resonance imaging study of normal fetal brains in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

Starting as a speck barely visible to the naked eye and ending the in utero phase of its journey at an average weight of 7.5 pounds, the growth of the human fetus is one of the most amazing events in biology. Of all the organs, the fetal brain undergoes one of the most rapid growth trajectories, expanding over 40 weeks from zero to 100 billion neurons — about as many brain cells as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

This exponential growth is part of what gives humans our unique abilities to use language or have abstract thoughts, among many other cognitive skills. It also leaves the brain extremely vulnerable should disruptions occur during fetal development. Any veering off the developmental plan can lead to a cascade of results that have long-lasting repercussions. For example, studies have shown that placental insufficiency, or the inability of the placenta to supply the fetus with oxygen and nutrients in utero, is associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and schizophrenia.

Recent research has identified differences in the brains of people with these disorders compared with those without. Despite the almost certain start of these conditions within the womb, they have remained impossible to diagnose until children begin to show clinical symptoms. If only researchers could spot the beginnings of these problems early in development, says Children’s National Health System researcher Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., they might someday be able to develop interventions that could turn the fetal brain back toward a healthy developmental trajectory.

“Conventional tools like ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can identify structural brain abnormalities connected to these problems, but by the time these differences become apparent, the damage already has been done,” Limperopoulos says. “Our goal is to be able to pick up very early deviations from normal in the high-risk pregnancy before an injury to the fetus might become permanent.”

Before scientists can recognize abnormal, she adds, they first need to understand what normal looks like.

In a new study published in Cerebral Cortex, Limperopoulos and colleagues begin to tackle this question through the largest MRI study of normal fetal brains in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. While other studies have attempted to track normal fetal brain growth, that research has not involved nearly as many subjects and typically relied on data collected when fetuses were referred for MRIs for a suspected problem. When the suspected abnormality was ruled out by the scan, these “quasi-controls” were considered “normal” — even though they may be at risk for problems later in life, Limperopoulos explains.

By contrast, the study she led recruited 166 healthy pregnant women from nearby low-risk obstetrics practices. Each woman had an unremarkable singleton pregnancy and ended up having a normal full-term delivery, with no evidence of problems affecting either the mother or fetus over the course of 40 weeks.

At least one time between 18 and 39 gestational weeks, the fetuses carried by these women underwent an MRI scan of their brains. The research team developed complex algorithms to account for movement (since neither the mothers nor their fetuses were sedated during scans) and to convert the two-dimensional images into three dimensions. They used the information from these scans to measure the increasing volumes of the cerebellum, an area of the brain connected to motor control and known to mediate cognitive skills; as well as regions of the cerebrum, the bulk of the brain, that is pivotal for movement, sensory processing, olfaction, language, and learning and memory.

Their results in uncomplicated, full-term pregnancies show that over 21 weeks in the second half of pregnancy, the cerebellum undergoes an astounding 34-fold increase in size. In the cerebrum, the fetal white matter, which connects various brain regions, grows 22-fold. The cortical gray matter, key to many of cerebrum’s functions, grows 21-fold. And the deep subcortical structures (thalamus and basal ganglia), important for relaying sensory information and coordination of movement and behavior, grow 10-fold. Additional examination showed that the left hemisphere has a larger volume than the right hemisphere early in development, but sizes of the left and right brain halves were equal by birth.

By developing similar datasets on high-risk pregnancies or births—for example, those in which fetuses are diagnosed with a problem in utero, mothers experience a significant health problem during pregnancy, babies are born prematurely, or fetuses have a sibling diagnosed with a health problem with genetic risk, such as autism—Limperopoulos says that researchers might be able to spot differences during gestation and post-natal development that lead to conditions such as schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder.

Eventually, researchers may be able to develop fixes so that babies grow up without life-long developmental issues.

“Understanding ‘normal’ is really opening up opportunities for us to begin to precisely pinpoint when things start to veer off track,” Limperopolous says. “Once we do that, opportunities that have been inaccessible will start to present themselves.”

Altered blood flow may contribute to preemie brain injuries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premature birth may alter critical cerebellar development linked to learning and language

 Diffusion tensor imaging teases out subtle injury to cerebral and cerebellar white matter that is not evident with conventional MRI, allowing researchers to quantify brain tissue microstructure and classify white matter integrity.

Diffusion tensor imaging teases out subtle injury to cerebral and cerebellar white matter that is not evident with conventional MRI, allowing researchers to quantify brain tissue microstructure and classify white matter integrity.

Premature birth can interrupt a key period of brain development that occurs in the third trimester, which has the potential to impact a child’s long-term learning, language, and social skills. A recent case-control study published in The Journal of Pediatrics applied diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging (DTI) to zoom in on the microstructures comprising the critical cerebellar neural networks related to learning and language, and found significant differences between preterm and full-term newborns.

“The third trimester, during which many premature births occur, is typically when the developing cerebellum undergoes its most dramatic period of growth. Normally, the cerebellar white matter tracts that connect to the deep nuclei are rich in pathways where nerve fibers cross. Those connections permit information to flow from one part of the brain to another. It is possible that premature birth leads to aberrant development of these critical neural networks,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System and senior study author.

One in 10 American babies is born prematurely. The brain injury that infants born prematurely experience is associated with a range of neurodevelopmental disabilities, including some whose influence isn’t apparent until years later, when the children begin school. Nearly half of extremely preterm infants go on to experience long-term learning, social, and behavioral impairments.

While conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect many brain abnormalities in newborns, a newer technique called DTI can tease out even subtle injury to cerebral and cerebellar white matter that is not evident with conventional MRI. White matter contains axons, which are nerve fibers that transmit messages. With DTI, researchers can quantify brain tissue microstructure and describe the integrity of white matter.

The research team compared imaging from 73 premature infants born before 32 weeks gestation who weighed less than 1,500 grams with 73 healthy newborns born to mothers who delivered at full term after 37 weeks. After the newborns had been fed, swaddled, and fitted with double ear protection, the imaging was performed as they slept. Nurses monitored their heart rates and oxygen saturation. Their brain abnormalities were scored as normal, mild, moderate, or severe.

All of the full-term newborns had normal brain MRIs as did 44 (60.3 percent) of the preemies.

The preemies had significantly higher fractional anisotropy in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that processes incoming information from elsewhere in the brain, permitting coordinated movement as well as modulating learning, language, and social skills. Alterations in cerebellar microarchitecture was associated with markers for illness severe enough to require surgery – such as correcting abnormal blood flow caused by the failure of the ductus arteriosus to close after birth and to remedy a bowel disease known as necrotizing enterocolitis. The risk factors also are associated with compromised cardiorespiratory function and low Apgar score at five minutes, Limperopoulos and co-authors write. The Apgar score is a quick way to gauge, one minute after birth, how well the newborn withstood the rigors of childbirth. It is repeated at five minutes to describe how the newborn is faring outside of the womb.

“In previous studies, we and others have associated cerebellar structural injury in preterm infants with long-term motor, cognitive, and socio-affective impairments. This is one of the first studies to provide a detailed report about these unexpected alterations in cerebellar microstructural organization,” she adds. “We postulate that the combination of premature birth and early exposure of the immature developing cerebellum to the extrauterine environment results in disturbed micro-organization.”

Additional research is warranted in larger groups of patients as well as long-term follow up of this cohort of newborns to determine whether this microstructural disorganization predicts long-term social, behavioral, and learning impairments.

“A large number of these prematurely born newborns had MRI readings in the normal range. Yet, we know that these children are uniquely at risk for developing neurodevelopmental disabilities later in life. With additional study, we hope to identify interventions that could lower those risks,” Limperopoulos says.

Related resources: The Journal of Pediatrics editorial

Fetal Cardiac Health

Managing transposition of the great arteries in the womb

Fetal Cardiac Health

Monitoring and managing fetuses’ heart health in the womb can greatly improve their chances of living long and productive lives

Over the 22 years that Mary T. Donofrio, M.D., has been practicing fetal cardiology, the field has changed radically. The goal once had been simply to offer parents an accurate diagnosis and prepare them for sometimes devastating outcomes. Now, Dr. Donofrio, who directs the Fetal Heart Program and Critical Care Delivery Program at Children’s National Health System, says specialists can follow fetuses throughout the pregnancy and manage many conditions in the womb, greatly improving their chances of living long and productive lives.

Case in point: Transposition of the great arteries, a congenital defect characterized by reversal of the heart’s two main arteries—the aorta, which distributes oxygenated blood throughout the body, and the pulmonary artery, which carries deoxygenated blood from the heart to the lungs. The single abnormality means that the oxygenated “red” blood flows back to the lungs while deoxygenated “blue” blood flows out to the body.

After birth, when the cord is clamped and the connection to the placenta severed, the baby’s cardiovascular system must adjust. If the fetal connections between the two sides of the heart no longer remain, the brain and other organs in infants with this defect are severely deprived of oxygen. The condition may be fatal if something is not done immediately to reopen the fetal connections to stabilize the circulation before surgery can be done. But if the fetal cardiologist can keep tabs on what’s happening to the heart over time and prepare a specialty team of cardiologists to treat the problem immediately after birth, chances of survival are significantly improved.

More than a decade ago, as a young attending physician, Dr. Donofrio witnessed a case that has stuck with her to this day. The baby’s diagnosis of transposition of the great arteries was not made until shortly before birth. In addition, the two fetal blood flow connections that allow blood to circulate had closed, causing severe heart failure. Although the care team performed an emergency delivery and immediate cardiac procedure, including initiation of a heart-lung machine in the delivery room to try to stabilize the circulation, the baby ultimately died due to complications from a very low oxygen level. “I always wonder what happened,” Dr. Donofrio says. “Was the baby’s heart always that bad and nobody noticed it, or did it change over time?”

In a paper published recently in the Journal of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine, she and colleagues illustrate the dramatic transformation in care that has taken place in the 14 years since this unforgettable case. The new publication describes the case of a different fetus diagnosed at 22 weeks gestation with transposition of the great arteries in 2015 at Children’s National. Unlike many congenital heart disorders, the heart’s four chambers appear misleadingly normal at the typical mid-pregnancy ultrasound. Despite the challenging diagnosis for many obstetricians, this fetus’ heart condition was recognized early by looking at the arteries leaving the heart in addition to the chambers.

While such a defect is fatal if left untreated, Dr. Donofrio explains there are two pathways that can allow the blood to get to where it needs to go such that the circulation is stabilized and the damage mitigated. One is the fetal blood vessel known as the ductus arteriosus that typically stays open for a day or two after birth. The second is an opening between the heart’s two upper chambers, known as the foramen ovale, which usually closes upon delivery. By keeping those two pathways open, blood can cross from one side of the heart to the other, buying time in the delivery room so that babies can be stabilized before they receive surgery to permanently move the arteries back to their normal position.

In the 2015 case, Dr. Donofrio and colleagues had the chance to monitor the fetus and the fetal heart at follow-up appointments every four weeks after diagnosis. What they saw completely changed the course of their treatment plan and likely saved the baby’s life. With each ultrasound, they saw that the ductus arteriosus and the foramen ovale—the critical connections needed for survival—were gradually closing.

Dr. Donofrio noted at the fetal evaluation at 38 weeks that the structures had closed, and the heart was showing signs that it was not functioning well.  She and her team realized that the only way to save this baby was to deliver earlier than planned and to have cardiac specialists standing by ready to perform a life-saving procedure to open the connections right after the baby was separated from the placenta. The baby was delivered by Cesarean section in the cardiac operating room at Children’s. The cardiac intervention team immediately created a hole where the foramen ovale should have been by using a balloon to open the tissue that had closed. The care team also administered a prostaglandin infusion, a drug that can keep the ductus arteriosis open. This time, however, the medicine did not work. The baby was stabilized with several cardiac medications and, with little time to spare, the cardiac surgeons operated on the one-day-old baby to switch his great arteries back to the normal position, saving his life.

The baby is now 1-year-old, Dr. Donofrio says, and is healthy—a scenario that likely wouldn’t have happened had the fetal team not made the diagnosis and continually monitored the condition in the womb.

“I remember back to that first case when we were really scrambling to do everything we could at the last minute because we didn’t have the information we needed until the very end,” Dr. Donofrio says. “Now, we can spot problems early and do something about it. For me, that’s amazing. We’re making a difference, and that’s a really great thing.”

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

preemieimage

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

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

A look at the research

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

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

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

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

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

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

New program provides science-driven answers about zika virus’s impact on pregnancies

Drs. DeBiasi and du Plessis

Each week, as temperatures rise, the likelihood increases that the United States will experience domestic Zika virus transmission. Indeed, such domestic Zika transmission already is occurring in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Children’s National Health System Fetal Medicine Institute and Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease announced the formation of a Congenital Zika Virus Program to serve as a dedicated resource for referring clinicians and for pregnant women to receive counseling and science-driven answers about the impact of the Zika virus on their pregnancies.

Over years, Children’s National has invested in equipment and highly trained personnel, building expertise in infectious diseases, pediatric neurology, pediatric cardiology, genetics, neurodevelopment, and other specialties. Children’s clinicians are recognized as national leaders in next-generation imaging techniques, such as fetal MRI, and a variety of divisions work together to offer multidisciplinary support and coordinated care to infants born with special needs. As the nation prepares for the Zika virus, Children’s National is facilitating the multi-step process of blood testing, helping to ensure timely and precise information. Children’s National specialists are able to guide Zika-affected pregnancies through the fetal period and can oversee the care of Zika-affected infants after delivery. Care and clinical support is provided by a multidisciplinary team of pediatric neurologists, physical therapists, infectious disease experts, and neurodevelopmental physicians.