Neonatology

Depressed mom sitting on couch with infant

Improving post-partum depression screening in the NICU and ED

Depressed mom sitting on couch with infant

A universal screening program is a critical first step for hospitals caring for postpartum caregivers, both inpatient and outpatient.

Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) — particularly postpartum depression — are more prevalent among parents who have newborns admitted to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Children’s National Hospital sought to increase the number of parents screened for PMADs in the NICU and Emergency Department (ED), where there was a high incidence of people seeking care. The team found that a universal screening program is a critical first step for hospitals caring for postpartum caregivers, both inpatient and outpatient.

The big picture

Without treatment, PMADs affect the caregiver and disturb their interaction with their infant, impacting the child’s cognitive and emotional development.

“What surprised us was how many people we saw that screen positive for postpartum depression and anxiety disorders. The percentage of our population is higher than what is reported in the literature,” said Sofia Perazzo, M.D., program lead at Children’s National.

What we did

The team initiated a multifaceted approach, using an electronic version of the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Screening tool.

  • A part-time family services support staff was hired to screen caregivers. Funding later expanded the team to cover more days and hours.
  • Real-time social work interventions and linkage to resources were provided to all caregivers.
  • A part-time psychologist was hired to provide telemedicine therapy to NICU parents.
  • Remote screening was implemented for those who could not be screened in-person.

In the NICU, 1,596 parents were approached from August 2018-April 2022. Of those approached, 90% completed the screen, 26% screened positive, 4% indicated having suicidal thoughts and about 13% of caregivers were fathers.

What we learned

  • Action plans need to be in place for positive screens at start.
  • Electronic tools can aid significantly in expanding screening.
  • Trained personnel and multidisciplinary approaches are key.
  • Screening in two different settings can be challenging as they present different systems.
  • Being flexible and adapting tools and the system are key to success.
  • Good team communication with the nurse is vital.

“We’re working on improving our screening system to make it more efficient. We also realized that we need to make more resources available to these families,” said Dr. Perazzo. “Our team is constantly looking for community resources that can help them along the way. There is also a big need to educate our families on mental health issues, so we use this encounter as an opportunity to do that as well.”

This work was made possible by an investment from A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation to Children’s National that aims to provide families with greater access to mental health care and community resources. Read more about the work of the Perinatal Mental Health Task Force at Children’s National.

Platinum ELSO Award logo

Children’s National receives Platinum ELSO Award of Excellence

Platinum ELSO Award logoIn 1984, Children’s National Hospital became the first children’s hospital to offer Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) and remains one of the largest ECMO programs in the nation, led by Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National. This year, the Children’s National ECMO Program was recognized by the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO) with the Platinum ELSO Award of Excellence in Extracorporeal Life Support. This award recognizes centers that demonstrate an exceptional commitment to evidence-based processes and quality measures, staff training and continuing education, patient satisfaction and ongoing clinical care.

By being designated as a Center of Excellence with ELSO, Children’s National has demonstrated extraordinary achievement in the following three categories:

  • Excellence in promoting the mission, activities and vision of ELSO
  • Excellence in patient care by using the highest quality measures, processes and structures based upon evidence
  • Excellence in training, education, collaboration and communication supporting ELSO guidelines that contributes to a healing environment for families, patients and staff

“As a member of the Founding Steering Committee of the ELSO organization which started in 1989, the goal was to bring critical care providers doing this highly technical therapy together to develop quality outcome data and standards of care,” says Dr. Short. “ELSO is now the international organization that most programs — neonatal, pediatric and adult — around the world belong to. So, it is an honor this year to have received the ELSO Award of Excellence at the platinum level representing the amazing Extracorporeal Life Support Team we have at Children’s National, caring for patients in all three ICUs.”

Join Children’s National at our 39th annual symposium, ECMO and the Advanced Therapies for Cardiovascular and Respiratory Failure, on February 26-March 1, 2023. Learn more at ecmomeeting.com.

pregnant woman getting vaccinated

COVID-19 vaccine may protect pregnant women from SARS-CoV-2 placentitis and stillbirth

pregnant woman getting vaccinated

In a new article published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, researchers conclude that the vaccine not only protects pregnant women but may also be lifesaving for their unborn children.

Stillbirth is a recognized complication of COVID-19 in pregnant women caused by harmful changes to the placenta induced by the virus. Termed SARS-CoV-2 placentitis, it can render the placenta incapable of providing oxygen to the fetus, leading to stillbirth and neonatal death. Researchers now suggest that pregnant women who get the COVID-19 vaccine may be protected from SARS-CoV-2 placentitis and stillbirth. In a new article published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, researchers conclude that the vaccine not only protects pregnant women but may also be lifesaving for their unborn children.

The extensive examination of published literature involved reviewing nearly 100 papers looking at COVID-19’s impacts on pregnant women and the effects on the placenta and pregnancy outcome. Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a prenatal-neonatal neurologist in the Division of Prenatal Pediatrics at Children’s National Hospital and co-author of the article, says the findings make a strong case for vaccination.

“The COVID-19 virus fortunately does not cause birth defects like other viruses such Zika, but it can cause severe injury to the placenta that can result in stillbirth and other pregnancy complications,” says Dr. Mulkey. “I hope patients who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant can learn how the COVID vaccine may help keep them and their baby healthy throughout pregnancy from some of the worst effects of this virus.”

While stillbirths can have many causes, the data analyzed supports that the COVID-19 vaccine is beneficial for pregnancies and for reducing the risk of stillbirth by reducing the risk of the virus impacting the placenta.

“In the multiple reports of SARS-CoV-2 placentitis that have been associated with stillbirths and neonatal deaths, none of the mothers had received COVID-19 vaccinations,” says David Schwartz, M.D., lead author, epidemiologist and perinatal pathologist. “And although not constituting proof, we’re not aware, either personally, via collegial networks, or in the published literature, of any cases of SARS-CoV-2 placentitis causing stillbirths among pregnant women having received the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Earlier in 2022, Dr. Schwartz led a team from 12 countries that found SARS-CoV-2 placentitis destroyed an average of 77.7% of placental tissue, resulting in placental insufficiency and fetal death, all occurring in unvaccinated mothers.

Fortunately, the large majority of pregnancies affected by a COVID-19 infection do not result in stillbirth. The development of SARS-CoV-2 placentitis is complex and likely involves both viral and immunological factors. The characteristics of a SARS-CoV-2 variant may also affect risk.

“Placental pathology is an important component in understanding the pathophysiology of SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy,” says Dr. Mulkey.

As part of the Congenital Infection Program at Children’s National, Dr. Mulkey has been following infants born to mothers who had SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy since the beginning of the pandemic. She will present the results of the early neurodevelopment of these infants at ID Week in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 22, 2022. Dr. Mulkey will also lead the neurodevelopmental follow-up of a large cohort of infants born to mothers with SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy to better understand any long-term neurological effects to offspring.

The study builds upon Dr. Mulkey’s longitudinal studies on Zika virus infection in pregnancy and long-term impacts on the child that is funded by the Thrasher Research Fund.

baby getting heel prick

Researchers study murky findings in newborn screening panels with $3.7m NIH grant

baby getting heel prick

Children’s National received a grant to investigate the impact of newborn screening on families who receive an uncertain prognosis.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Children’s National Hospital a $3.7 million grant to investigate the impact of newborn screening on the growing population of families who leave the testing with an uncertain prognosis.

Following the families longitudinally allows for a real-time view of the experiences of these children, sometimes referred to as “patients in waiting.”

Newborn screening is part of a universal, mandatory state health program that helps to identify inherited conditions that can affect a child’s health and survival. Millions of babies are screened annually for genetic, metabolic and endocrine disorders, using a few drops of blood from a prick to the heel; additional tests are done at the bedside such as hearing and heart screening. Sometimes, however, the results create medical odysseys and flag conditions that may never result in symptoms.

“For its first 50 years, newborn screening presented relatively consistent outcomes,” said principal investigator Beth Tarini, M.D., M.S., M.B.A., who serves as the associate director of the Center for Translational Research at Children’s National. “However, in the 21st century, new screening tests have created more ambiguous findings. As a result, we cannot accurately predict what type of symptoms a child may develop, when or if they will develop them, or how severe they will be. This is a lot to ask parents to deal with after the birth of a new child who appears otherwise healthy.”

Why it matters

The uncertainty can take a significant toll on parents by creating fear, anxiety and the medicalization of a child. However, to date, little long-term data exist to inform the care for these children. Ethically, that gap leaves clinicians unsure of how to weigh the benefit and harm of mandatory newborn screening programs. From a policy perspective, the drought of information leads to questions about how best to add disorders to newborn screening panels – an issue that will likely only grow as technology allows us to test for more conditions.

“We have a new group of children growing up and wondering when – or if – they will ever develop signs or symptoms of a disease,” Dr. Tarini said. “For some families, the information is an opportunity. For others, it becomes a burden. We owe it to these families to understand their experience and chart a sensible path forward to help them.”

What’s next

The four-year study will bring together researchers at Children’s National and Case Western University to analyze data and patient interviews from families in Virginia, Iowa and Oregon. The research team will include experts in newborn screening, genetics, health services, genetic counseling, psychology, bioethics and biostatistics.

Brain illustration

Paving the way toward better understanding and treatment of neonatal brain injuries

Brain illustration

The Gallo Lab’s latest research finds reduced expression of Sirt2 in the white matter of premature human infants and characterizes its role in white matter of the brain in normal conditions and during hypoxia.

Changes in myelination due to diffuse white matter injury are a common consequence of premature birth and hypoxic-ischemic injury due to asphyxia of sick term-born newborns. Hypoxic damage during the neonatal period can lead to motor disabilities and cognitive deficits with long-term consequences, including cerebral palsy, intellectual disability or epilepsy, which are often due to cellular and functional abnormalities.

The Gallo Lab, within the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Hospital, is focused on studying postnatal neural development and the impact of injury and disease on development and regeneration of neurons and glia. Their latest research, published in Nature Communications, finds reduced expression of Sirt2 in the white matter of premature human infants (born earlier than 32 weeks of gestation) and characterizes its role in white matter of the brain in normal conditions as well as during hypoxia.

What it means

The lab previously identified Sirt1 as important for the proliferative regenerative response of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells in response to chronic neonatal hypoxia. This new study characterizes the function of Sirt2 and finds that it acts as a critical promoter of oligodendrocyte differentiation during both normal brain development and after hypoxia.

It’s likely this reduced expression of Sirt2 contributes to the arrest in oligodendrocyte maturation and myelination failure seen in extremely low gestational age neonates. Therefore, targeting Sirt2 may be an opportunity to capture the early and small window of opportunity for therapeutic intervention.

How this moves the field forward

Sirtuins have been shown to play crucial therapeutic roles in various diseases, including aging, neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Identifying Sirt2 as a major regulator of white matter development and recovery and increasing the understanding of its protein and genomic interactions opens new avenues for Sirt2 as a therapeutic target for white matter injury in premature babies.

Why we’re excited

Interestingly, the team found that overexpression of Sirt2 in oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, but not mature oligodendrocytes, restores oligodendrocyte populations after hypoxia through enhanced proliferation and protection from apoptosis. This is exciting because:

  • It tells us that Sirt2 expression is very important for the transition from progenitor to differentiated oligodendrocyte.
  • It’s the first report, to the team’s knowledge, of Sirt2 regulating cell survival of oligodendrocytes.

Read more in Nature Communications

US News Badges

Children’s National named to U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll

US News BadgesChildren’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., was ranked No. 5 nationally in the U.S. News & World Report 2022-23 Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings. This marks the sixth straight year Children’s National has made the list, which ranks the top 10 children’s hospitals nationwide. In addition, its neonatology program, which provides newborn intensive care, ranked No.1 among all children’s hospitals for the sixth year in a row.

For the twelfth straight year, Children’s National also ranked in all 10 specialty services, with seven specialties ranked in the top 10.

“In any year, it would take an incredible team to earn a number 5 in the nation ranking. This year, our team performed at the very highest levels, all while facing incredible challenges, including the ongoing pandemic, national workforce shortages and enormous stress,” said Kurt Newman, M.D., president and chief executive officer of Children’s National. “I could not be prouder of every member of our organization who maintained a commitment to our mission. Through their resilience, Children’s National continued to provide outstanding care families.”

“Choosing the right hospital for a sick child is a critical decision for many parents,” said Ben Harder, chief of health analysis and managing editor at U.S. News. “The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings spotlight hospitals that excel in specialized care.”

The annual rankings are the most comprehensive source of quality-related information on U.S. pediatric hospitals and recognizes the nation’s top 50 pediatric hospitals based on a scoring system developed by U.S. News.

The bulk of the score for each specialty service is based on quality and outcomes data. The process includes a survey of relevant specialists across the country, who are asked to list hospitals they believe provide the best care for patients with the most complex conditions.

The seven Children’s National specialty services that U.S. News ranked in the top 10 nationally are:

The other three specialties ranked among the top 50 were cardiology and heart surgerygastroenterology and gastro-intestinal surgery, and urology.

Dr. Limperopoulos talks to a mom

Pandemic-related stressors in pregnant women affect fetal brain development

Dr. Limperopoulos talks to a mom

Dr. Catherine Limperopoulos walking with a mom.

Prolonged levels of stress and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to altering key features of fetal brain development — even if the mother was not infected by the virus. This is what a study published in Communications Medicine suggests after following more than 200 pregnant women. The study, led by Children’s National Hospital experts, emphasized the need for more scientific inquiry to shed light on the long-term neurodevelopmental consequences of their findings and COVID-19 exposures on fetal brain development.

“Understanding how contemporary stressors may influence fetal brain development during pregnancy has major implications for basic science and informing public policy initiatives,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., chief and director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National and senior author of the study. “With this work, we are able to show there’s a problem, it’s happening prenatally, and we can use this model to start exploring how we can reduce stress in moms and support unborn babies.”

To better understand the effects of environmental exposures on the fetus during pregnancy, further confirmation of the team’s latest findings is needed by ruling out other possibilities, such as maternal nutrition, financial security and genetic factors.

The psychosocial impact of COVID-19 on fetal brain development remains vastly understudied. The neurologic underpinnings of fetal development that turn into psycho-behavioral disorders later in life, including bipolar disorder, mood disorder or anxiety disorder, remain complex and difficult to explain.

Among the 202 participants from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, 137 were part of the pre-pandemic cohort and 65 were part of the pandemic cohort.

Through advanced MRI imaging techniques and reconstruction of high-resolution 3D brain models, the researchers found a reduction of fetal white matter, hippocampal and cerebellar volumes and delayed brain gyrification in COVID-19 pandemic-era pregnancies. Validated maternal stress, anxiety and depression scales were also used to compare the scores between the two cohorts.

This study builds upon previous work from the Developing Brain Institute led by Limperopoulos, which discovered that anxiety in pregnant women appears to affect the brain development of their babies. Her team also found that maternal mental health, even in high socioeconomic status, alters the structure and biochemistry of the developing fetal brain, emphasizing the importance of mental health support for pregnant women.

“We’re looking at modifiable conditions,” said Limperopoulos. “What’s clear is the next frontier is intervening early to see how we can prevent or reduce stress in the mom’s current setting.”

crawling baby

Gene-targeting may help prevent or recover neonatal brain injuries

crawling baby

The findings of a new pre-clinical study published in The Journal of Neuroscience are helping pave the way toward better understanding, prevention and recovery of neonatal brain injuries.

The findings of a new pre-clinical study published in The Journal of Neuroscience are helping pave the way toward better understanding, prevention and recovery of neonatal brain injuries. During pregnancy, the fetus normally grows in low oxygen conditions. When babies are born preterm, there is an abrupt change into a high oxygen environment which may be higher than the baby can tolerate. These preterm babies often need support to breathe because their lungs are immature. If the oxygen they receive is too high, oxygen-free radicals can form and cause cell death.

Premature infants have underdeveloped antioxidant defenses that prevent or delay some types of cell damage under normal conditions. In a high oxygen environment, these underdeveloped defenses cannot fully protect against oxidative stress, damaging different brain regions without available treatments or preventative measures.

“I am thrilled that we identified a defect in a specific cell population in the hippocampus for memory development,” said Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., interim chief academic officer and interim director of the Children’s National Research Institute, and principal investigator for the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center. “I did not think we would be able to do it at a refined level, identifying cell populations sensitive to oxidative stress and its underlying signaling pathway and molecular mechanism.”

Vittorio Gallo

“I am thrilled that we identified a defect in a specific cell population in the hippocampus for memory development,” said Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Children’s National Hospital experts found that oxidative stress over-activates a glucose metabolism enzyme, GSK3β, altering hippocampal interneuron development and impairing learning and memory, according to the pre-clinical study. The researchers also inhibited GSK3β in hippocampal interneurons, reversing these cellular and cognitive deficits.

The role of oxidative stress in the developing hippocampus, as well as GSK3β involvement in oxidative stress-induced neurodevelopmental disorders and cognitive deficits, have both been unexplored until now. Goldstein et al. suggest the study paves the way for the field as a viable approach to maximize functional recovery after neonatal brain injury.

To better understand the mechanisms underlying neonatal brain injury, the researchers mimicked the brain injury by inducing high oxygen levels in a pre-clinical model for a short time. This quest led to unlocking the underpinnings of the cognitive deficits, including the pathophysiology and molecular mechanisms of oxidative damage in the developing hippocampus.

Once they identified what caused cellular damage, the researchers used a gene-targeted approach to reduce GSK3β levels in POMC-expressing cells or Gad2-expressing interneurons. By regulating the levels of GSK3β in interneurons ⁠— but not in POMC-expressing cells — inhibitory neurotransmission was significantly improved and memory deficits due to high oxygen levels were reversed.

pregnant woman by window

Stress during pregnancy may hinder cognitive development

pregnant woman by window

This is the first study to shed light on an important link between altered in-utero fetal brain development and the long-term cognitive development consequences for fetuses exposed to high levels of toxic stress during pregnancy.

Women’s elevated anxiety, depression and stress during pregnancy altered key features of the fetal brain, which subsequently decreased their offspring’s cognitive development at 18 months. These changes also increased internalizing and dysregulation behaviors, according to a new study by Children’s National Hospital published in JAMA Network Open. Researchers followed a cohort of 97 pregnant women and their babies. The findings further suggest that persistent psychological distress after the baby is born may influence the parent-child interaction and infant self-regulation.

This is the first study to shed light on an important link between altered in-utero fetal brain development and the long-term cognitive development consequences for fetuses exposed to high levels of toxic stress during pregnancy. While in the womb, the researchers observed changes in the sulcal depth and left hippocampal volume, which could explain the neurodevelopment issues seen after birth. Once they grow into toddlers, these children may experience persistent social-emotional problems and have difficulty establishing positive relationships with others, including their mothers. To further confirm this, future studies with a larger sample size that reflect more regions and populations are needed.

“By identifying the pregnant women with elevated levels of psychological distress, clinicians could recognize those babies who are at risk for later neurodevelopmental impairment and might benefit from early, targeted interventions,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., chief and director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National and senior author of the study.

Catherine Limperopoulos

“By identifying the pregnant women with elevated levels of psychological distress, clinicians could recognize those babies who are at risk for later neurodevelopmental impairment and might benefit from early, targeted interventions,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., chief and director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National and senior author of the study.

Regardless of their socioeconomic status, about one of every four pregnant women suffers from stress-related symptoms, the most common pregnancy complication. The relationship between altered fetal brain development, prenatal maternal psychological distress and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes remain unknown. Studying in utero fetal brain development poses challenges due to fetal and maternal movements, imaging technology, signal-to-noise ratio issues and changes in brain growth.

All pregnant participants were healthy, most had some level of education and were employed. To quantify prenatal maternal stress, anxiety and depression, the researchers used validated self-reported questionnaires. Fetal brain volumes and cortical folding were measured from three-dimensional reconstructed images derived from MRI scans. Fetal brain creatine and choline were quantified using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. The 18-month child neurodevelopment was measured using validated scales and assessments.

This study builds upon previous work from the Developing Brain Institute led by Limperopoulos, which discovered that anxiety in pregnant women appears to affect the brain development of their babies. Her team also found that maternal mental health, even for women with high socioeconomic status, alters the structure and biochemistry of the developing fetal brain. The growing evidence underscores the importance of mental health support for pregnant women.

“We’re looking at shifting the health care paradigm and adopting these changes more broadly to better support moms,” said Limperopoulos. “What’s clear is early interventions could help moms reduce their stress, which can positively impact their symptoms and thereby their baby long after birth.”

zika virus

Researcher to decipher how viruses affect the developing brain with nearly $1M NIH award

zika virus

Zika virus in blood with red blood cells, a virus which causes Zika fever found in Brazil and other tropical countries.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Children’s National Hospital nearly $1M of research support toward uncovering the specific cellular response that happens inside a developing brain once it is infected with a virus, including how the neuron gets infected, and how it dies or survives. The research is expected to gather critical information that can inform prenatal neuro-precision therapies to prevent or attenuate the effects of endemic and pandemic viruses in the future.

“We need to use all of the information we have from ongoing and past pandemics to prevent tomorrow’s public health crisis,” said Youssef Kousa, MS, D.O., Ph.D., neonatal critical care neurologist and physician-scientist at Children’s National. “There is still here a whole lot to learn and discover. We could eventually — and this is the vision that’s inspiring us — prevent neurodevelopmental disorders before a baby is born by understanding more about the interaction between the virus, mother, fetus, and environment, among other factors.”

Different viruses, including HIV, CMV, Zika and rubella, injure the developing brain in very similar ways. This line of work was fostered first by the clinical research team led by Adre du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., and Sarah Mulkey, M.D., supported by Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., chief and director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National.

The clinical research findings then led to the NIH support, which then inspired more basic science research. Fast forward to now, Kousa will study how Zika affects the human brain and extrapolate what is learned and discovered for a broader understanding of neurovirology.

The research program is supported by senior scientists and advisors, including Tarik Haydar, Ph.D., and Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., both at Children’s National and Avindra Nath, M.D., at NIH, as well as other leading researchers at various U.S. centers.

“This is a team effort;” added Kousa, “I’m thankful to have a group of pioneering and seasoned researchers engaged with me throughout this process to provide invaluable guidance.”

Many viruses can harm the developing brain when they replicate in the absence of host defenses, including the gene regulatory networks responsible for the neuronal response. As a result, viral infections can lead to brain injury and neurodevelopmental delays and disorders such as intellectual disability, seizures that are difficult to treat, and vision or hearing loss.

The big picture

Youssef Kousa

Youssef Kousa, MS, D.O., Ph.D., neonatal critical care neurologist and physician-scientist at Children’s National.

The translational research supported by NIH with this award synergistically complements nationally recognized clinical research programs and ongoing prospective cohort studies at Children’s National to identify the full spectrum of neurodevelopmental clinical outcomes after prenatal Zika and other viral infections led by Dr. Mulkey and Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S..

The award also builds upon strengths at the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, which is in proximity to federal science agencies. Children’s National experts from the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, known for pediatric genomic and precision medicine, joined forces with the Center of Neuroscience Research and the NIH-NINDS intramural research program to focus on examining prenatal and childhood neurological disorders.

Kousa received this competitive career development award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number K08NS119882. The research content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

The hold-up in the field

Many neurodevelopmental disorders are caused by endemic viruses, such as CMV, and by viral pandemics, including rubella as seen in the 1960s and Zika since 2015. By studying Zika and other prenatal viral infections, Kousa and team hope to gain deeper biological understanding of the viral effects toward developing therapies for anticipating, treating and preventing virally induced prenatal brain injury in the long-term future.

To date, little is known about how viruses affect developing neurons and, as a result, prenatal brain injury is not yet treatable. To bridge the gap towards prenatal neuro-precision therapies, the research explores how genes regulate neuronal developmental and viral clearance by innovatively integrating three systems:

  • Cerebral organoids, which illuminate how a neuron reacts to a viral infection
  • Pre-clinical models that link prenatal brain injury to postnatal neurodevelopmental outcomes
  • Populational genomics to identify human genetic risk or protective factors for prenatal brain injury

Given the scope and complexity of this issue, the international Zika Genetics Consortium, founded in 2015 by Kousa and a team of leading investigators across the world, provides critical samples and resources for the third arm of the research by performing comprehensive genomic analyses using sequencing data collected from diverse human populations throughout Central and South America, which are not as heavily sequenced as Western populations. Through partnerships with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NIH, the consortium’s database and biorepository houses thousands of patient records and biospecimens for research studies to better understand how viruses affect the developing human brain.

“It is inspiring to imagine that, in the longer term, we could recognize early on the level of brain-injury risk faced by a developing fetus and have the tools to mitigate ensuing complications,” said Kousa. “What is driving this research is the vision that one day, brain injury could be prevented from happening before a baby is born.”

girl with down syndrome

Study finds delayed oligodendrocyte progenitor maturation in Down syndrome

girl with down syndrome

People with Down syndrome (DS) can have moderate to severe intellectual disability, which is thought to be associated with changes in early brain development.

People with Down syndrome (DS) can have moderate to severe intellectual disability, which is thought to be associated with changes in early brain development. Children’s National Hospital experts discovered delayed maturation in oligodendrocyte progenitors in DS. Oligodendrocytes produce the white matter which insulates neural pathways and ensures speedy electrical communication in the brain. The researchers identified these delays by measuring gene expression at key steps in cell development, according to a new study published in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience.

The findings further suggest that brain and spinal cord oligodendrocytes differ in their developmental trajectories and that “brain-like” oligodendrocyte progenitors were most different from control cells, indicating that oligodendrocytes in the brains of people with DS are not equally affected by the trisomy 21.

“This is one of the critical steps towards identifying the key stages and molecular players in the DS white matter deficits,” said Tarik Haydar, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroscience Research. “With this knowledge, and with further work in this direction, we envision future therapies that may improve nerve cell communication in the brains of people with Down syndrome.”

The hold-up in the field

The mechanisms that lead to the reduction of white matter in the brains of people with DS are unknown. To better understand early neural precursors, they used isogenic pluripotent stem cell lines derived from two individuals with Down syndrome to study the brain development and spinal cord oligodendrocytes.

“I was excited that we discovered another example of how important it is not to generalize when studying DS brain development,” said Haydar. “This is one of several papers, from our group and others, that demonstrate how important it is to be very specific about the brain area and the developmental stage when investigating the causes of DS brain dysfunction.”

What’s next

Dysmaturation of oligodendrocyte cells are a relatively new discovery by the Haydar Lab, one of the preeminent labs in DS research. These results isolate specific steps that are affected in human cells with trisomy 21. They are using these results to develop a drug screening platform that may prevent altered generation of oligodendrocytes in the future.

You can read the full study “Sonic Hedgehog Pathway Modulation Normalizes Expression of Olig2 in Rostrally Patterned NPCs With Trisomy 21” in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience.

DNA moleucle

Multidisciplinary team seeks to reverse epigenetic changes associated with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder

DNA moleucle

The team hopes to optimize and develop treatments that can reverse epigenetic changes in clinical trials, paving the way to make significant progress in the field — something that is lacking to date.

A clinical team joined forces with a research team at Children’s National Hospital to help advance treatments that can improve a child’s development caused by fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASDs), which is a group of conditions that can occur in a person who was exposed to alcohol before birth. This boost in collaboration between the bench and clinical hopes to optimize and develop treatments that can reverse epigenetic changes in clinical trials, paving the way to make significant progress in the field — something that is lacking to date.

So far, Children’s National experts have published various pre-clinical studies that identified epigenetic changes caused by alcohol exposure during pregnancy. These changes observed in the pre-clinical models created neuropsychiatric problems like patients with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder. Now, they want to bring such potential treatments effective in pre-clinical models to the bedside.

“As a first step, we are going to test whether the epigenetic changes that were observed in pre-clinical models of FASD are also true in human patients,” said Kazue Hashimoto-Torii, Ph.D., principal investigator of the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National. “We hope a small amount of blood donated by patients with FASD reveal the changes. Meanwhile, my group has also been optimizing drug candidates that reverse the epigenetic changes toward clinical trials.”

Advances in genetics and genomics have led to discoveries about the timing of exposure and developmental outcomes and genetic and epigenetic signatures that may be protective or harmful in terms of how in utero alcohol exposure affects developmental outcomes.

The hold-up in the field

While the exact number of people with FASDs is unknown, the National Institutes of Health estimates that 1% to 5% of the population have FASDs. FASDs has a spectrum of diagnoses that represent a broad range of effects that can be manifested in an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These conditions can affect everyone in different ways and range from mild to severe. Individuals with mild conditions may go undiagnosed. The more affected individuals have comorbid attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and behavioral problems that become the focus of clinical encounters. The individual’s health care provider may not recognize the core features as part of FASD.

“Because there is a stigma associated with drinking while pregnant, many providers fail to get this history, and women may be reluctant to offer this information,” said Andrea Gropman, M.D., division chief of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics and Neurogenetics at Children’s National. “There are subtle and more obvious facial dysmorphology that may help with suspicion or identification, but many individuals do not have these findings.”

The core features may be nonspecific, such as intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior and learning, difficulties with math, memory, attention, judgment and poor impulse control, which are frequent findings in ADHD, autism, learning disorders and other conditions.

“Unless history is taken and FASD is in the differential diagnosis, the diagnosis may not be made,” said Dr. Gropman. “Individuals with FASD may feel stigmatized and opt not to participate in clinical trials.”

As mentioned by Dr. Gropman, stigma can make a patient family be reluctant to seek treatment, and thus the development of treatment for FASD cannot make significant progress to date, Hashimoto-Torii added.

Children’s National Hospital leads the way in an IRB approved study

Researchers at Children’s National have identified a potential drug candidate that reverse the epigenetic changes and may lead to clinical trials. The team is seeking people to participate in an IRB approved study. The study will involve cognitive testing, filling out surveys about current functioning and cheek swab and blood sample to determine if these changes are seen in patients. To participate, subjects must be

  • Children between the ages 5-12 with prenatal alcohol exposure.
  • Mother of child recruited above.

For participation, please contact Grace Johnson, research coordinator at to screen for eligibility at 202-476-6034 or gjohnson3@childrensnational.org

Meet the multidisciplinary team with different yet complementary skills in different fields, such as basic science, medical, social sciences, neurology and developmental disabilities, and development, who are working tirelessly to address the complex health problem.

Gropman lab:

Andrea Gropman, M.D., received her medical doctorate degree from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and specializes in neurogenetics, with a focus on mitochondrial disorders and Smith Magenis syndrome. Her latest research focuses on atypical patterns of inheritance, childhood mitochondrial disorders and other inborn errors of metabolism presenting with white matter disease.

Meira Meltzer, M.A., M.S., C.G.C., genetic counselor with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital and healthcare industry. Also skilled in molecular biology, clinical research and medical education. Strong healthcare services professional with a M.S. focused on genetic counseling from Brandeis University.

Cathy Scheiner, M.D., developmental behavioral pediatrician with a special interest in attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy and premature infant.

Grace Johnson, research assistant.

Hashimoto-Torii Lab:

Kazue Hashimoto-Torii, Ph.D., received her postdoctoral training in the Pasko Rakic laboratory at Yale University. Her research focuses on neurobehavior problems of children that stem from their environment during development, such as prenatal exposure to alcohol, drug and high-level glucose. A few drug candidates that her lab discovered have been patented and her lab is currently working hard to bring those medicines to bedside.

Satoshi Yamashita, M.D., Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow skilled in developmental neurobiology. He is a pediatrician with Japanese medical license and received his Ph.D. with iPS cell research for STXBP1 encephalopathy in Japan.

Chiho Yamashita, B.N., research assistant passionate about child disease research. She is a nurse with a Japanese nursing license and worked in the pediatric department in Japan.

stressed mom holding baby

An integrated approach to address perinatal mental health treatment

stressed mom holding baby

Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) are the most common complication of childbirth, with suicide as a leading cause of postpartum deaths.

Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) are the most common complication of childbirth, with suicide as a leading cause of postpartum deaths. PMADs are associated with poor maternal, infant and family outcomes. A new advocacy case study in Pediatrics led by a collaborative team of physicians at Children’s National Hospital describes the creation of the Task Force to formalize collaboration between hospital divisions, promote systems-level change and advocate for health care policy solutions.

Spearheaded by the Division of Emergency Medicine, the Goldberg Center for Community Pediatric Health and the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National, the #1 rated neonatology program in the country, the physicians who led this case study hope it can serve as a model for advocates looking to integrate PMAD screening within their own institutions. Children’s National is currently one of only a few children’s hospitals in the country that have implemented universal PMADs screening.

Lenore Jarvis, M.D., director of advocacy and health policy for the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National, and Lamia Soghier, M.D., medical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and the NICU Quality and Safety Officer at Children’s National, discussed this important work:

Q: What were you looking at with this case study?

A: Dr. Jarvis: This case study describes the implementation and outcomes of a multidisciplinary Perinatal Mental Health Task Force created at Children’s National in Washington, D.C. It was created to promote systems change and health care policy solutions for improved identification and treatment of PMADs.

Using the social-ecological model as a framework, the Task Force addressed care at the individual, interpersonal, organizational, community and policy levels. It then applied lessons learned from division-specific screening initiatives to create best practices and make hospital-wide recommendations.

This foundational work enabled us to build community bridges and break down internal barriers to shift our hospital toward prioritizing perinatal mental health. As a result, screening expanded to multiple hospital locations and the Perinatal Mental Health Screening Tool Kit was created and disseminated within the community. Task Force members also testified in governmental hearings and joined national organizations to inform policy, and Task Force and community collaborations resulted in significant grant funding.

Q: How is this work benefitting patients?

A: Dr. Soghier: Identification and early intervention for PMADs are imperative for improving health outcomes – not only for mothers but for their children and families too. Given the prevalence and negative consequences of untreated PMADs, we continue to innovate to improve the care we provide for infants and their families. We hope that this case study inspires others who value family mental health and are looking to integrate PMAD screening within their institutions.

Q: What are some of the barriers to getting this work implemented more widely?

A: Dr. Jarvis: One important thing to note is that families and medical providers alike may be unaware of how common PMADs truly are. On top of that, they’re unaware of the downstream negative impact it can have on the infant and family.

As a society, we must realize that PMADs can affect paternal caregivers. We need to have resources that also address fathers in addition to culturally and racially competent systems and resources for referral and linkage to care.

A: Dr. Soghier: Within medical systems, fragmented and siloed care delivery systems continue to be a barrier. Medical staff may also feel untrained and uncomfortable with addressing positive PMADs screens. Within the pediatric practice, differential access to services and reimbursement continue to be a concern, especially in a system where the parent is technically “not our patient.”

Identifying PMADs in our families and providing real-time resources and linkage to care has been invaluable to us. Ultimately, we seek to improve the care we provide to our infants and families and improve patient-family outcomes.

Read the full case study in the journal Pediatrics.

Timeline of major Task Force events

Timeline of major Task Force events. CES-D, Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale; DC, District of Columbia; PCORI, Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

Representative OFF and DIFF spectra

GABA and glutamate in the preterm neonatal brain

Preterm and sick newborns are at high risk of brain injury that can lead to cognitive delays and behavioral disorders including autism and ADHD. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate system disruptions may underlie these neonatal brain injuries and hence it is important to describe their normative profile in the developing neonatal brain.

In a study led by Sudeepta Basu, M.D., neonatologist at Children’s National Hospital and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, specialized GABA editing spectroscopy (MEGA-PRESS) was acquired on a 3Tesla MRI scanner. Although MEGA-PRESS has been used in older subjects, there are challenges in the newborn population that have limited investigations with only a few institutions worldwide. Under the leadership of Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., in the Developing Brain Institute (DBI) at Children’s National, a team of scientists (in particular, Dr. Subechhya Pradhan) have diligently overcome the technical challenges to enable use of this cutting-edge technology for research at the institute.

With this unique capability, Dr. Basu’s team prospectively enrolled 58 healthy newborns to describe the normal GABA and glutamate concentrations in different regions of the developing brain. In a recent article published in the American Journal of Neuroradiology, Dr. Basu reports that GABA and glutamate concentrations were highest in the cerebellum, slightly lower in the basal ganglia, but significantly lower in the frontal lobe.

“Our ability to reliably describe the normal metabolic-neurotransmitter milieu of the developing newborn brain is the first step in filling a critical gap in knowledge,” says Dr. Basu. “We hope to identify early bio-markers of brain injury of cognitive delays and autism and ADHD risk which remains a major challenge until clinical symptoms manifest later in childhood.”

Under the direction of Dr. Limperopoulos, advanced multi-modal high precision MRI protocols have been developed for use in research studies at Children’s National that allows the scientists to identify subtle signs of delayed growth and development of the newborn brain. With the optimization of MEGA-PRESS for newborns, Children’s National is one of a few institutions worldwide capable of investigating the newborn brain neurotransmitters in future research studies.

Read the full article in American Journal of Neuroradiology.

Representative OFF and DIFF spectra

Representative OFF and DIFF spectra.

computer circuit board

Integrating clinical parameters with lung imaging to predict respiratory outcomes in premature babies

computer circuit board

The team will develop an objective framework to predict the risk and assess the severity of respiratory disease in premature babies using non-invasive low-radiation X-ray imaging biomarkers and clinical parameters from the patient bedside.

Children’s National Hospital received a $1.7M award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to develop computational tools that integrate continuous clinical parameters with lung imaging to predict respiratory outcomes for babies born severely premature in newborn intensive care unit (NICU) settings.

The multi-disciplinary team of internationally recognized experts in quantitative imaging, machine learning and neonatal respiratory research believes they can improve clinical practice. To get there, they will develop an objective framework to predict the risk and assess the severity of respiratory disease in premature babies using non-invasive low-radiation X-ray imaging biomarkers and clinical parameters from the patient bedside.

“This computational tool will assist clinicians in making critical decisions about the course of therapy and other necessary follow-ups,” said Gustavo Nino, M.D., M.S.H.S., D’A.B.S.M., principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine at Children’s National. “An objective informed decision about the severity of lung disease in prematurity will result in fewer rehospitalizations, better long-term outcomes and life-saving benefits.”

Prematurity is the largest single cause of death in children under five in the world. Lower respiratory tract infections (LRTI) are the top cause of hospitalization and mortality in premature infants. Clinical tools to predict the risk and assess the severity of LRTI in premature babies are needed to allow early interventions that can decrease the high morbidity and mortality in this patient group.

“Our new technology will provide clinicians an accurate, fast and comprehensive summary of the respiratory status of premature babies,” said Dr. Nino. “The data analysis along with the software technology will help determine if a premature baby seen in the NICU can be safely discharged or will require further monitoring and treatment.”

Predictive analytics could help in many ways. For example, there are instances where newborns in the NICU are on the right path with no risks in the future, but there are babies who will come back with severe infections.

“In the first scenario, if we can predict earlier that they’re fine, this could reduce the number of chest X-rays and extra tests, so we assess that this child can be safely sent home,” said Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., M.A., M.Sc., principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National. “On the other hand, for kids that may come back to the hospital in the near future, we could predict earlier that they are not that well by looking at images and other continuous measurements such as supplemental oxygen.”

This approach, in essence, is a collection of continuous data from the NICU, which is very complex itself because it needs to be collected every day and fed into a machine learning model that digests the data to identify risk patterns for the health of the lung.

“If we find that there is still a risk, it does not necessarily mean that the child has to stay in the NICU any longer, but they might continue treatment, and we will have to define how this integrates into the clinical management of these patients,” said Linguraru. “If there is something in the data that we can put our finger on, we will know which kids require timely attention, hopefully reducing future adverse situations with potential comorbidities and financial burdens.”

NCC-PDI logo

Pediatric medical device competition takes aim at congenital heart disease

NCC-PDI logo

Consistent with its mission of addressing the most pressing pediatric device needs, this year’s competition focused on innovations in electrophysiology devices that monitor and treat congenital heart disease (CHD) and arrhythmias in pediatric patients.

The National Capital Consortium for Pediatric Device Innovation (NCC-PDI) announces five awardees chosen in its prestigious annual “Make Your Medical Device Pitch for Kids!” competition to share $150,000 in grant funding from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to support the advancement of pediatric medical devices. In an unprecedented decision, the competition judges determined that all five finalists were deserving of a grant award and recognition for the potential patient benefit and commercial viability of their innovations.

Consistent with its mission of addressing the most pressing pediatric device needs, this year’s competition, conducted by NCC-PDI partner MedTech Innovator, focused on innovations in electrophysiology devices that monitor and treat congenital heart disease (CHD) and arrhythmias in pediatric patients. The virtual pediatric pitch event was part of the 9th Annual Symposium on Pediatric Device Innovation.

This year’s pediatric device innovation awardees are:

  • PeriCor – The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore – New York, NY, and Children’s National Hospital – PeriTorq, a catheter grip tool for use during pediatric cardiac interventional procedures;
  • Inkspace Imaging – Pleasanton, CA – a pediatric cardiac and vascular MRI coil;
  • Karios Technologies – Charlottesville, VA – Tissue Shield, a technology to prevent scar tissue formation (adhesions) on the heart after surgery;
  • Sibel – Niles, IL – ANNE One, ICU-grade wireless sensors for cardiopulmonary monitoring in neonates with congenital heart defects;
  • Starlight Cardiovascular – San Diego, CA – Project Lifeline, a less-invasive way to maintain sufficient circulation in newborns with ductal-dependent circulation that increases safety, procedural success and ease of use.

Congenital heart disease (CHD) affects six out of 1,000 babies born in the U.S. each year and is often complicated by arrhythmias, a condition where the heart beats too rapidly, too slowly or irregularly due to a misfiring of the body’s electrical impulses. While the last decade brought great advances in technologies that improve the care of adult arrhythmias, pediatric patients have been left behind, with only five devices approved for use in children in the same period. As a result, pediatric specialists are often using off-label or improvised devices to treat pediatric arrhythmias, including in the smallest newborns.

“Recognizing this unmet need, NCC-PDI opened the challenge earlier this year to select companies to enter MedTech Innovator’s pediatric accelerator program, made possible by NCC-PDI. The five companies have immensely benefited from the accelerator program and are well-positioned to compete for funding. They have the potential to advance pediatric health and provide a greater standard of care for children living with CHD,” says Kolaleh Eskandanian, Ph.D., M.B.A, P.M.P, vice president and chief innovation officer at Children’s National Hospital and principal investigator of NCC-PDI. “For too long, the unique needs of children have been overlooked in pediatric device development. Thanks to the support of the FDA, we are able to build our challenge competitions around the direst unmet needs, which are determined through a thorough needs assessment and market analysis conducted to inform each request for proposal. The funding incentivizes pediatric innovation and helps more companies navigate the path to commercialization.”

NCC-PDI is one of five consortia in the FDA’s Pediatric Device Consortia Grant Program created to support the development and commercialization of medical devices for children, which lags significantly behind the progress of adult medical devices. NCC-PDI is led by the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Hospital and the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, with support from partners MedTech Innovator,  BioHealth Innovation and design firm Archimedic.

A pediatric accelerator program, powered by MedTech Innovator, is the consortium’s latest addition to a network of resources and experts that NCC-PDI provides in support of pediatric innovators. All five of this year’s competition finalists had an opportunity to participate in the year-long accelerator program.

Eskandanian adds that supporting the progress of pediatric innovators is a key focus of the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, a one-of-its-kind ecosystem that drives discoveries that save and improve the lives of children. On a nearly 12-acre portion of the former, historic Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington, D.C., Children’s National has combined its strengths with those of public and private partners, including industry, universities, federal agencies, start-up companies and academic medical centers, the campus provides a rich environment of public and private partners which, like the NCC-PDI network, will help bolster pediatric innovation and commercialization.

Drs. Katie Donnelly, Panagiotis Kratimenos, Rana Hamdy, Shayna Coburn and Brynn Marks

Five Children’s National Hospital faculty named to Society for Pediatric Research

Drs. Katie Donnelly, Panagiotis Kratimenos, Rana Hamdy, Shayna Coburn and Brynn Marks

The Society for Pediatric Research (SPR) announced five new members from Children’s National Hospital: Drs. Rana Hamdy, Panagiotis Kratimenos, Brynn Marks, Shayna Coburn and Katie Donnelly.

The Society for Pediatric Research (SPR) announced five new members from Children’s National Hospital. Established in 1929, SPR’s mission is to create a multi-disciplinary network of diverse researchers to improve child health.

Membership in SPR is a recognized honor in academic pediatrics. It requires nomination by academic peers and leaders as well as recognition of one’s role as an independent, productive child health researcher.

“I am so proud of our faculty and all that they have accomplished. I am thrilled that they have been recognized for their achievements,” said Beth A. Tarini, M.D., M.S., SPR president and associate director for the Center for Translational Research at Children’s National Hospital.

SPR 2021 active new members from Children’s National are:

    • Katie Donnelly, M.D., M.P.H., attending physician in the Emergency Department at Children’s National Hospital. She is the medical director for Safe Kids DC, an organization dedicated to preventing accidental injuries in children in Washington DC. Her personal research interest is in preventing firearm injuries in children and she is a member of Safer through Advocacy, Firearm Education and Research (SAFER), a multidisciplinary team dedicated to firearm injury prevention at Children’s National. She is also the medical director of the newly founded hospital-based violence intervention program at Children’s National and an associate professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at The George Washington University.“To be recognized by my peers as a researcher with a significant contribution to our field is very validating. It also opens a world of potential collaborations with excellent scientists, which is very exciting!” said Dr. Donnelly. “I am grateful for the immense support offered to me by the Division of Emergency Medicine to complete the research I am passionate about, especially my mentor Monika Goyal.”
    • Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ph.D., newborn intensivist and neuroscientist at Children’s National. He studies mechanisms of brain injury in the neonate, intending to prevent its sequelae later in life. Dr. Kratimenos’ interest lies in identifying therapies to prevent or improve neurodevelopmental disabilities of sick newborns caused by prematurity and perinatal insults.“Being a member of SPR is a deep honor for me. SPR has always been a ‘mentorship home’ for me since I was a trainee and a member of the SPR junior section,” said Dr. Kratimenos. “A membership in the SPR allows us to access a very diverse, outstanding team of pediatric academicians and researchers who support the development of physician-scientists, honors excellence through prestigious grants and awards, and advocates for children at any level either locally, nationally, or internationally.”
    • Rana Hamdy, M.D., M.P.H., M.S.C.E., pediatric infectious diseases physician at Children’s National and Director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program. She is an assistant professor of pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Her area of expertise focuses on the prevention and treatment of antimicrobial resistant infections and the promotion of good antimicrobial stewardship in inpatient and outpatient settings.“It’s an honor to be joining the Society for Pediatric Research and becoming part of this distinguished multidisciplinary network of pediatric researchers,” said Dr. Hamdy. “I look forward to the opportunity to meet and work with SPR members, make connections for future collaborations, as well as encourage trainees to pursue pediatric research through the opportunities that SPR offers.”
    • Shayna Coburn, Ph.D., director of Psychosocial Services in the Celiac Disease Program at Children’s National. She is a licensed psychologist specializing in coping and interpersonal relationships in chronic illness treatment, particularly for conditions involving specialized diets. She holds an appointment as assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Her work has focused on promoting effective doctor-patient communication, reducing healthcare disparities and supporting successful adherence across the developmental span of childhood and adolescence. She currently has a Career Development Award from National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to refine and test a group intervention designed to improve self-management and quality of life in teens with celiac disease.
      “I hope that my background as a psychologist researcher will help diversify SPR. As an SPR member, I hope to encourage more opportunities for training, awards, and other programs that would be inclusive of clinician researchers who may not hold a traditional medical degree,” said Dr. Coburn.
    • Brynn Marks, M.D., M.S.-H.P.Ed., endocrinologist at Children’s National. As a clinical and translational scientist her goal is to use unique personal experiences and training to optimize both patient and provider knowledge of and behaviors surrounding diabetes technologies thereby realizing the potential of diabetes technologies improve the lives and clinical outcomes of all people living with diabetes. Her experiences as a person living with Type 1 diabetes have undoubtedly shaped her clinical and research interests in diabetes management and medical education.
      “It is an honor to be accepted for membership in the Society for Pediatric Research,” said Dr. Marks.  “Being nominated and recognized by peers in this interprofessional pediatric research community will allow me networking and growth opportunities as I continue to advance my research career.”
Neuronal network with electrical activity

Neonatal hypoxia-ischemia causes damage to the cholinergic system

Neuronal network with electrical activity

Study suggests permanent injury to the cholinergic system after neonatal hypoxia-ischemia is responsible for the poor executive functions and difficulties in learning and memory.

Newborn babies who go through periods of low oxygen — also known as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy — during their first hours of life often experience difficulties in learning, memory and executive functions later on. Even when treated with therapeutic hypothermia, memory deficits and executive functions remain severely affected. These functions are linked to a neurotransmitter network called the cholinergic system.

“Complications from hypoxic-ischemic brain injury contribute to one-quarter of neonatal deaths worldwide and cause significant long-term neurological morbidity,” explains Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ph.D., neonatologist at Children’s National Hospital and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

In a study published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology led by Frances Northington, M.D., co-director of Neurosciences Intensive Care Nursery at Johns Hopkins and Professor of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, with contributions from Dr. Kratimenos, the authors found significant injury to the neurons of the cholinergic systems in specific parts of the brain after exposure to low oxygen and restricted blood flow. These areas included the ipsilateral medial septal nucleus (MSN), the ipsilateral nucleus basalis of Meynert (nbM) and striatum. Within the injured part of the cortex at the site of injury, acetylcholine — the neurotransmitter found in cholinergic systems — was abnormally overactivated.

The authors hypothesize that permanent injury to the cholinergic system after neonatal hypoxia-ischemia is responsible for the poor executive functions and difficulties in learning and memory.

“Because cholinergic systems can easily be manipulated pharmacologically with already established treatments that have been used in other areas of medicine, they could be a good a target for therapeutic interventions for neonates with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy,” says Dr. Kratimenos.

Read the full article in the Journal of Comparative Neurology.

Maria Susana Rueda Altez

Maria Susana Rueda Altez, M.D., to lead as Junior Section President-Elect

Maria Susana Rueda Altez

Maria Susana Rueda Altez, M.D., junior section president-elect for the Society for Pediatric Research (SPR).

Maria Susana Rueda Altez, M.D., was selected as junior section president-elect for the Society for Pediatric Research (SPR). During her tenure, Dr. Rueda Altez will ensure more trainees benefit from networking opportunities and leverage her online communications experience to increase awareness, membership and participation in SPR among students, residents and fellows.

The president of the junior section is a fellow who is elected by other junior member peers and is in-charge of managing and enhancing the junior section, by participating in SPR council meetings, promoting membership among trainees and reinforcing the pipeline from junior to active members.

“I am so honored, not only as a Peruvian physician, but as an international medical graduate (IMG), to have been elected for this position,” said Dr. Rueda Altez. “As an IMG, there are special challenges to conducting research, so I plan to raise awareness and provide support to my fellow IMG junior members.”

To Beth A. Tarini, M.D., M.S., SPR president and associate director for the Center for Translational Research at Children’s National Hospital, it is an honor for the hospital to have representatives in the roles of SPR president and SPR junior section president-elect simultaneously.

Dr. Rueda Altez added that there is an urgent need for increased funding in pediatric research, especially for minority and health disparities research. Through her participation in SPR, she will also have the opportunity to advocate for increases in child health research funding.

“I encourage all the trainees and junior faculty in our institution to join the SPR junior section,” said Dr. Rueda Altez. “It provides wonderful resources for career development and guidance, grant writing courses and invaluable mentorship.”

Her research interest is newborn infections, and her overall goal is to reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics in this population.

“I am currently working on a quality improvement project to reduce the number of days NICU infants are exposed to antibiotics,” said Dr. Rueda Altez. “I have developed a project to ascertain the utility of microbial cell-free DNA next generation sequencing, a novel microbiologic diagnostic tool, for the diagnosis of neonatal infections.”

Dr. Rueda Altez’s work on neonatal sepsis will help scientists better distinguish between neonates who do and don’t have serious bacterial infections.

“Right now, when in doubt we tend to treat it as bacterial infections, which can lead to unnecessary medical treatment and worsen resistance to antibiotics,” said Tarini.

Dr. Rueda Altez also serves as an independent reviewer of investigational manuscripts for The Journal of Pediatrics and Pediatrics and guest editor for The Journal of Pediatrics. Her passion for the peer-review process also shows in her long list of published research.

Dr. Tarini also foresees multiple research trends in the next five years that might appear in peer-reviewed publications.

“We have so much to tackle in child health research, both ongoing and new challenges,” said Dr. Tarini.  “Some issues that come to mind are the mental health crisis in children and teens, continuing to make strides on treating and preventing childhood obesity, the effect of poverty on children’s health, and the pandemic’s effect on all of these issues and its direct effect on health outcomes.”

x-ray of human skull

Researchers awarded $3.5 million to study brain and cranium development in children

x-ray of human skull

Currently, studies on typical brain and cranium development are limited. One reason for this is that imaging techniques are optimized to best visualize either bone or soft tissue, but not both.

With prevalence of developmental disorders on the rise, the need to understand brain development has never been more critical. Development of the brain is strongly influenced by the cranium, but this relationship has not been adequately studied because of limitations in imaging technology. Now, researchers from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Children’s National Hospital are working together to develop techniques that will provide greater insight into this relationship. Their studies will be funded by The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, which has awarded them $3.5 million.

Natasha Leporé, Ph.D., of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, studies methods to interpret brain imaging data. “There’s a lot of interaction between the skull and the brain,” she says, “and we want to better understand how they grow together.”

Currently, studies on typical brain and cranium development are limited. One reason for this is that imaging techniques are optimized to best visualize either bone or soft tissue, but not both.

The brain — mostly composed of water, protein and fat — doesn’t show up well on computerized tomography (CT) scans, which use X-ray images. In addition, radiation exposure limits the amount of CT scan data available in children. On the other hand, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are excellent for brain images but are not optimal for surrounding bone.

This presents researchers with a dilemma if they want to see the brain and the skull together in one image. Fortunately, research barriers like these are often overcome by collaboration.

Leporé will work with Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil, M.A., MS.c., principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Hospital.

Linguraru works on a set of tools for cranial phenotyping, using existing CT images from typically developing children. In their collaboration, Leporé and Linguraru will extend the tools to MRI scans, allowing the team to analyze the brain and cranium simultaneously. The pair has received a $3.5 million award over 5 years.

“The tools we develop together will help us to better understand the healthy growth of children,” says Linguraru. “We will have the ability to analyze the joint cranial and brain development from large medical image datasets of pediatric patients.”

This, the team says, will be invaluable to the medical community.

“These tools will help clinicians to better assess, diagnose and plan treatment for infants with cranial deformities,” says Linguraru.

Collaborations like this allow expertise to be shared across specialties, ultimately benefiting children in need. Exceptional pediatric care is a result of teamwork; not only doctors, nurses and clinical staff, but also biomedical research, which arms clinicians with the information they depend on.

“We need to have a clear idea of what is expected in normal development,” says Leporé. “This allows doctors to detect and better understand differences in development.”

Other members of the research team include: Vidya Rajagopalan, Ph.D.; Marvin Nelson, M.D.; Alexis Johns, Ph.D.; Niharika Gajawelli, Ph.D. (from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and University of Southern California); Robert Keating, M.D. (Children’s National Hospital); Yalin Wang, Ph.D. (Arizona State University); Antonio Porras, Ph.D. (University of Colorado); Sean Deoni, Ph.D. (Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University).

A version of this story appeared on the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles newsroom.