Neurology & Neurosurgery

x-ray of child with dislocated hip

Hip surveillance helps identify dislocations in children with Cerebral Palsy

x-ray of child with dislocated hip

Hip surveillance is a process used to monitor the hips closely and frequently, identifying the problems earlier.

Children with cerebral palsy (CP) have an increased risk for hip displacement. Hip displacement in children with CP can happen slowly over time and can be painful, but a hip surveillance program can prevent this. Hip surveillance is a process used to monitor the hips closely and frequently, identifying the problems earlier. It is an ongoing process that continues for every child until skeletal maturity.

“Every child with cerebral palsy should be referred for hip surveillance regardless of determination by the Gross Motor Function Classification System,” said Sean Tabaie, M.D., orthopaedic surgeon at Children’s National Hospital.

Dr. Tabaie created a hip surveillance manual for primary care providers who care for this patient population. In most cases, these patients are monitored and followed closely by their primary care team. Education material regarding hip surveillance, including the background knowledge, is often not available to those practitioners in a concise format. To successfully initiate a hip surveillance program, it is important to promote education and provide the appropriate materials to that group of practitioners.

“Our goal is to improve the care of children with cerebral palsy by decreasing the overall presentation of dislocated hips in our clinic settings and promote the appropriate timing of referrals for evaluation of hip subluxation secondary to cerebral palsy or neuromuscular conditions,” said Tabaie.

Download the Surveillance Guidelines for Children with Cerebral Palsy here.

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.

Tommie Robinson

Tommie L. Robinson, Jr., Ph.D., receives ASHA award

Tommie Robinson

Tommie L. Robinson, Jr., Ph.D., CCC-SLP, division chief of Hearing and Speech at Children’s National Hospital.

Recognized for his transformational and innovative leadership and his impactful work in the areas of diversity and inclusion, Tommie L. Robinson, Jr., Ph.D., CCC-SLP, division chief of Hearing and Speech at Children’s National Hospital, received the 2021 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) Honors award.

ASHA recognizes members for their distinguished contributions to the discipline of communication sciences and disorders and is the highest honor that the more than 218,000 member organization bestows. The Honors of the Association award recognizes the contributions of individuals of such excellence that have enhanced or altered the course of the profession.

Dr. Robinson was nominated for his transformational and innovative leadership, his work in the areas of diversity and inclusion, and his mentorship over his career. Dr. Robinson is one of the earliest researchers to examine the characteristics of fluency and disfluencies in Blacks. His unique work laid the foundation for his later efforts in the application of that knowledge to intervention in Black children who stutter. Dr. Robinson’s work continues to serve as the primary contribution to the science of the discipline in this area.

Throughout his career, Dr. Robinson has served many leadership roles including: being elected and serving as the first Black male president of ASHA; leadership roles with the District of Columbia Speech-Language-Hearing Association (DCSHA) and his work with the National Black Association for Speech Language and Hearing (NBASLH); the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation (ASH Foundation); and the International Association of Logopedics and Phoniatrics (IALP).  Throughout his leadership roles, Dr. Robinson has always been an innovative leader on issues of diversity and empowerment and he noted he is “honored to be recognized by my peers.”

In commenting about Dr. Robinson’s leadership, Patricia Prelock, Ph.D., former ASHA President and Provost/Senior Vice President at the University of Vermont, commented, “He initiated discussions on the importance of and value in developing new leaders.” She further recognized his commitment to ensuring the ASHFoundation sparks innovation while investing in researchers and clinicians.

Dr. Robinson is also respected for his leadership and his mentorship within Children’s National Hospital, where he has been since 1987.  Beginning as a speech-language pathologist, he was later promoted to coordinator of speech-language pathology and then as director of the Scottish Rite Center for communication disorders. Denice Cora-Bramble, M.D., chief diversity officer at Children’s National, noted, “I have been most impressed by his strong leadership skills and his ability to overcome obstacles. His affable and supportive interpersonal skills have been a pillar of strength for other colleagues, particularly to minorities in academia.”

Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National, stated that in Dr. Robinson’s “long and stellar career, he has worked tirelessly to promote the need for early and comprehensive speech-language-hearing services for children across the Washington, D.C., region, including those from the most impoverished and financially challenged areas. He has been a champion for diversity and inclusion and has mentored many minority trainees, including Black students. He has continued to act as a role model for these trainees as they proceed in their careers.”

The 2021 ASHA Award recipients will be honored at the ASHA 2021 annual meeting held from November 18-20, 2021 in Washington, D.C. To learn about all the award recipients, visit the ASHA web site here.

Dr. Javad Nazarian

Q&A with Dr. Javad Nazarian on his upcoming work on low-grade gliomas

Dr. Javad Nazarian

Supported by the Gilbert Family Foundation, Dr. Nazarian’s return is part of a special research program within the Gilbert Family Neurofibromatosis Institute that focuses on NF1 research.

Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., M.Sc., associate professor of Pediatrics at George Washington University and professor at the University of Zurich, has expanded his research group at Children’s National to focus on Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) transformed low-grade gliomas (LGGs). Dr. Nazarian will apply his expertise from establishing a successful DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma) and DMG (diffuse midline glioma) program in Zurich Switzerland and previously at Children’s National.

In addition to his continued research in Zurich, as a principal investigator at the Department of Genomics and Precision Medicine at Children’s National Dr. Nazarian plans on aggregating his knowledge to the new research and work spearheaded at Children’s National. As one of the first research teams to move to the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, Dr. Nazarian’s group is excited to use the opportunity to establish cutting-edge and clinically translational platforms.

Supported by the Gilbert Family Foundation, Dr. Nazarian’s return is part of a special research program within the Gilbert Family Neurofibromatosis Institute that focuses on NF1 research. This research includes associated gliomas with a special emphasis on NF1-associated transformed anaplastic LGGs. His team will develop new avenues of research into childhood and young adult NF-associated LGGs with a special emphasis on transformed high-grade gliomas.

Dr. Nazarian is excited for what’s to come and his goals are clear and set. Here, Dr. Nazarian tells us more about his main objectives and what it means for the future of pediatric neuro-oncology care at Children’s National.

  1. What excites you most about being back at Children’s National?

I have received most of my training at Children’s National, so this is home for me. Being one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals gives a unique advantage and ability to advocate for childhood diseases and cancers. It is always exciting to play a part in the vision of Children’s National.

  1. What are some of the lessons learned during your time working in Zurich? And how do you think these will compliment your work at Children’s National?

We developed a focused group with basic research activities intertwined with clinical needs.  The result was the launch of two clinical trials. I also helped in developing the Diffuse Midline Glioma-Adaptive Combinatory Trial (DMG-ACT) working group that spans across the world with over 18-member institutions that will help to design the next generation clinical trials. I will continue leading the research component of these efforts, which will have a positive impact on our research activities at Children’s National.

  1. How does your work focusing on low-grade gliomas formulating into high-grade gliomas expand and place Children’s National as a leader in the field?

Scientifically speaking, transformed LLGs are very intriguing. I became interested in the field because these tumors share molecular signatures similar to high-grade gliomas (HGGs). Our team has done a great job at Children’s National to develop tools – including biorepositories, avatar models, drug screening platforms, focused working groups, etc. – for HGGs. We will apply the same model to transformed LGGs with the goal of developing biology-derived clinical therapeutics for this patient population.

  1. How will this work support families and patients seeking specific neuro-oncology care?

We will develop new and high thruput tools so that we can better study cancer formation or transformation. These tools and platforms will allow us to screen candidate drugs that will be clinically effective. The main focus is to accelerate discovery, push drugs to the clinic, feed information back to the lab from clinical and subsequently design better therapies.

  1. You are one of the first scientists to move to the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. What are some of the valuable changes or advancements you hope to see as a result of the move?

The campus will provide high-end facilities, including cutting-edge preclinical space, and allow for team expansion. The close proximity to Virginia Tech will also provide an environment for cross-discipline interactions.

  1. Anything else you think peers in your field should know about you, the field or our program?

The team at Children’s National includes Drs. Roger Packer and Miriam Bornhorst. Both have provided constant clinical support, innovation and clinical translation of our findings. I look forward to working with them.

brain network illustration

Cardiopulmonary bypass may cause significant changes to developing brain and nerve cells

brain network illustration

Cardiopulmonary bypass, more commonly known as heart-and-lung bypass, has some unique impacts on the creation and growth of brain cells in the area of a child’s brain called the subventricular zone (SVZ), according to a study in the Annals of Neurology. The SVZ is a critical area for the growth and migration of neurons and nerve cells called neuroblasts, both of which ultimately contribute to the proper development of key brain structures and functions during the early years of life.

The findings, from a study conducted in the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory at Children’s National Hospital, provide new insight into the cellular impacts of the cardiopulmonary bypass machine on brain growth and development for newborn infants with congenital heart disease. They will have an important role in the refinement of strategies to help protect the fragile brains of children who require lifesaving cardiac surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass immediately after birth.

Specifically, the research team found that during cardiopulmonary bypass:

  • Creation of neurons (neurogenesis) in the neonatal and infant subventricular zone is altered.
  • Migration of nerve cells, called neuroblasts, to the frontal lobe is potentially disrupted.
  • Changes to the growth and movement of neurons in the SVZ are prolonged.
  • Cortical development and expansion is impaired.
  • Specific types of neurons found only in the brain and spinal cord, called interneurons, are also affected.

The study uses an innovative pre-clinical model of the developing brain that is more anatomically and physiologically similar to human neonates and infants than those used in prior studies and in most neurological laboratory-based research.

Cardiopulmonary bypass is one of several key factors thought to cause children with congenital heart disease to sometimes demonstrate delays in the development of cognitive and motor skills. These disabilities often persist into adolescence and adulthood and can ultimately represent long-term neurocognitive disabilities. It is also believed that genetic factors, abnormal blood flow to the brain while in utero or low cardiac output after surgical procedures on the heart may contribute to these challenges.

“Unraveling cellular and molecular events during surgery using this preclinical model will allow us to design therapeutic approaches that can be restorative or reparative to the neurogenic potential of the neuronal stem precursor cells found in the subventricular zone of the neonatal or infant brain,” says Nobuyuki Ishibashi. M.D., Foglia-Hills Professor of Pediatric Cardiac Research, director of the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior author on the study. “In particular, previous studies in our laboratory have shown improvement in the neurogenic activities of these precursor cells when they are treated with mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs).”

The findings from this study further support the work already underway in the NIH-funded MeDCaP clinical trial for neonates and infants undergoing cardiac surgery using the cardiopulmonary bypass machine. That trial uses the heart and lung machine itself to deliver MSCs directly into the main arteries that carry blood to the brain.

microglia cells damage the myelin sheath of neuron axons

Katrina Adams, Ph.D., awarded fellowship to help restore functions in MS patients

microglia cells damage the myelin sheath of neuron axons

Multiple sclerosis is a demyelinating disease in which the insulating covers of nerve cells are damaged. Microglia cells (orange) attack the oligodendrocytes that form the insulating myelin sheath around neuron axons, leading to the destruction of the myelin sheath and to the loss of nerve function.

For her contributions to Multiple Sclerosis (MS) research, Katrina Adams, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher at Children’s National Hospital, received the career transition fellowship from The National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The $600,000 fellowship will support a two-year period of advanced postdoctoral training in MS research and the first three years of research support in a new faculty appointment.

MS symptoms, including vision loss, pain, fatigue and reduced motor coordination, result from the demyelination of neuronal axons that transport critical information across the brain and spinal cord. Demyelination is the loss of myelin protein, which is normally produced by oligodendrocyte cells.

In the healthy brain, oligodendrocytes repair demyelinated areas by replacing damaged or lost myelin in a process called remyelination. Recent evidence has shown that oligodendrocytes display differences in their molecular and functional properties. One source of new oligodendrocytes in the adult brain is neural stem cells, which have been shown to generate oligodendrocytes that contribute to remyelination.

“The goal of this project is to determine whether neural stem cell-derived oligodendrocytes are distinct from other oligodendrocytes, both in the healthy brain and in MS,” said Adams. “I aim to understand the molecular mechanisms that regulate generation of oligodendrocytes from neural stem cells, with the goal of identifying signals that could be targeted in MS patients to promote remyelination.”

Remyelination is very limited in MS patients and current therapies for MS have very little impact on promoting remyelination.

This study will take advantage of the state-of-the-art facilities for single-cell analysis, transcriptomics, microscopy, and animal research in Children’s Research Institute at Children’s National. Adams also added that her postdoctoral mentor, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., interim chief academic officer and interim director of the Children’s National Research Institute, and principal investigator for the DC-IDDRC, has renowned expertise in glial biology, animal models of MS and white matter injury.

“This research will be the first to directly compare neural stem cell-derived oligodendrocytes with other resident oligodendrocytes in MS brain samples,” said Adams. “The results of this study will provide critical insight into the role that neural stem cells play in repair of MS demyelinated lesions.”

Adams received her doctorate in molecular biology from the University of California, Los Angeles where she used pluripotent stem cells to study motor neuron development. She currently investigates signaling pathways that regulate neural stem and progenitor cell maintenance and differentiation in the developing postnatal and adult brain, with a focus on the Endothelin-1 pathway. She is interested in understanding how stem and progenitor cells respond to disease or injury, such as in Multiple Sclerosis, with the hope of identifying new therapeutic targets.

doctor checking boy for concussion

NINDS awards $10 million for pediatric concussion research

doctor checking boy for concussion

Every year, more than 3 million Americans are diagnosed with concussions. Symptoms continue to plague 30 percent of patients three months after injury — adolescents face an even higher risk of delayed recovery.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has awarded a $10-million grant to the Four Corners Youth Consortium, a group of academic medical centers studying concussions in school-aged children. Led in part by the Safe Concussion Outcome Recovery and Education (SCORE) program at Children’s National Hospital, the project is named Concussion Assessment, Research and Education for Kids, or CARE4Kids.

Researchers will use advanced brain imaging and blood tests to explore biological markers—changes in blood pressure, heart rate and pupil reactivity—that could predict which children will develop persistent symptoms after concussion. The five-year CARE4Kids study will enroll more than 1,300 children ages 11-18 nationwide.

The five-year study will be led by Gerard Gioia, Ph.D., division chief of Neuropsychology at Children’s National Hospital, Frederick Rivara, M.D., M.P.H., at Seattle Children’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development and University of Washington’s Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, and Dr. Chris Giza at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

“We will be gathering innovative data to help answer the critical question asked by every patient: ‘When can I expect to recover from this concussion?’” said Dr. Gioia. “We have a great team and are excited to have been selected to study this important issue.”

Christopher G. Vaughan, Psy.D., neuropsychologist, and Raquel Langdon, M.D., neurologist, both at Children’s National, will join Dr. Gioia as principal investigators of the study at this site.

Every year, more than 3 million Americans are diagnosed with concussions. Symptoms continue to plague 30 percent of patients three months after injury—adolescents face an even higher risk of delayed recovery. Chronic migraine headaches, learning and memory problems, exercise intolerance, sleep disturbances, anxiety and depressed mood are common.

“Providing individualized symptom-specific treatments for youth with a concussion has been a longstanding aim of the SCORE program,”Dr. Vaughan said. “This project will lead to a better understanding of the specific markers for which children may have a longer recovery. With this knowledge, we can start individualized treatments earlier in the process and ultimately help to reduce the number of children who experienced prolonged effects after concussion.”

The grant was announced on September 9, 2021.

In Washington, D.C., an estimated 240 children ages 11 to 18, will participate in the study.

The study will unfold in two phases. The first part will evaluate children with concussion to identify a set of biomarkers predictive of persistent post-concussion symptoms. To validate the findings, the next stage will confirm that these biomarkers accurately predict prolonged symptoms in a second group of children who have been diagnosed with concussion. The goal is to develop a practical algorithm for use in general clinical practice for doctors and other health professionals caring for pediatric patients.

Institutions currently recruiting patients for the study include Children’s National Hospital, UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, Seattle Children’s, the University of Washington, University of Rochester, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Wake Forest School of Medicine. Indiana University, the National Institute of Nursing Research, University of Arkansas, University of Southern California and the data coordinating center at the University of Utah are also involved in the project.

Earlier research conducted by the Four Corners Youth Consortium that led to this project was funded by private donations from Stan and Patti Silver, the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program and the UCLA Easton Clinic for Brain Health; Children’s National Research Institute; as well as from the Satterberg Foundation to Seattle Children’s Research Institute; and an investment from the Sports Institute at UW Medicine.

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.

3d render of brain form

LEND program to support physicians with interdisciplinary training for NDD and ASD

3d render of brain form

In a time with dearth of specialties, LEND will train allied health professionals, parent advocates and self-advocates, provide continuing education and technical assistance, research and consultation while preparing professionals for leadership roles in the provision of health and related care.

A new program at Children’s National Hospital, known as The Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Other Related Disabilities (LEND CN), will provide interdisciplinary training to enhance clinical expertise and leadership skills while reducing the shortage of medical specialists — a hurdle also present nationwide. Participating institutions such as Children’s National Hospital, Howard University and University of the District of Columbia will enhance the care for children and families with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDD), including autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The program seeks to improve the health of infants, children and adolescents with or at risk for NDD and related disabilities. LEND CN will also prepare future leaders in this space that offer a comprehensive support tailored to a child’s specific condition.

“There are very few opportunities for training a broad multidisciplinary team to work with and provide leadership in the neurodevelopmental and autism space,” said Andrea Gropman, M.D., neurodevelopmental pediatrics and neurogenetics division chief at Children’s National Hospital and principal investigator of the LEND CN program. “This grant funding will allow the LEND CN leadership and curriculum team to develop innovative training and leverage community resources, universities and institutions to provide a broad, diverse and inclusive training.”

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) awarded the program with $2,200,000. The funding will help develop, implement, evaluate and innovate the curriculum and experiential activities of LEND CN. These efforts will be led by Dr. Gropman and Anne Pradella Inge, Ph.D., clinical director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Hospital and LEND educational content director.

In a time with dearth of specialties, LEND will train allied health professionals, parent advocates and self-advocates, provide continuing education and technical assistance, research and consultation while preparing professionals for leadership roles in the provision of health and related care.

“We have a broad multidisciplinary team of specialists in developmental pediatrics, neuropsychology, speech and hearing, and other allied health specialists,” Dr. Gropman said, adding that Children’s National is uniquely positioned to participate in this grant opportunity. “This grant is exciting because it allows us to take advantage of the full potential the D.C. area has to offer to establish comprehensive and individualized training.”

Many of the trainees of this program remain local and in the field of developmental disabilities and autism, while many others also have risen to leadership positions. Some who have completed the program return as LEND educators to the next generation of trainees, proving the many doors this program can open for those seeking a career in neurodevelopmental pediatrics and work that intersects with developmental disabilities and their families.

illustration of Research & Innovation Campus

NIH awards $6.7M to build additional lab space at Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National Hospital today announced a $6.7 million award from the National Institute of Health (NIH) for the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus (RIC). The funds will help transform a historic building on the former site of Walter Reed Army Medical Center into new research labs. The NIH construction grant marks the first secured grant funding for Phase II of the campus project, signaling continued momentum for the first-of-its-kind pediatric research and innovation hub.

The funding was announced as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson took their first tour of the already-renovated Phase I of the RIC. The campus began opening in early 2021 and brings together Children’s National with top-tier research and innovation partners: Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ Washington, DC and Virginia Tech. They come together with a focus on driving discoveries and innovation that will save and improve the lives of children.

“This NIH award is the latest confirmation that we are creating something very special at the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus,” said Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National. “Only the D.C. region can offer this proximity to federal science agencies and policy makers. When you pair our location with these incredible campus partners, I know the RIC will be a truly transformational space where we develop new and better ways to care for kids everywhere.”

The campus is an enormous addition to the BioHealth Capital Region, the fourth largest research and biotech cluster in the U.S., with the goal of becoming a top-three hub by 2023. The RIC exemplifies the city’s commitment to building the partnerships necessary to drive discoveries, create jobs, promote economic growth, treat underserved populations, improve health outcomes, and keep D.C. at the forefront of innovation and change.

“We are proud to officially welcome the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus to the District and to the Ward 4 community,” said Mayor Bowser, after touring the campus. “This partnership pairs a world-class hospital with a top university and a premier business incubator – right here in the capital of inclusive innovation. Not only will our community benefit from the jobs and opportunities on this campus, but the ideas and innovation that are born here will benefit children and families right here in D.C. and all around the world.”

The NIH grant funding announced today will go toward the expansion and relocation of the DC Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (DC-IDDRC). This research center will increase the efforts to improve the understanding and treatment of children with developmental disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, inherited metabolic disorders and intellectual disability.

The space where the new lab will be built used to be the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology Building, a portion of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The site closed and Children’s National secured 12 acres in 2016, breaking ground on Phase I construction in 2018.

The new space will offer highly cost-effective services and unique state-of-the-art research cores that are not available at other institutions, boosting the interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration between Children’s National, George Washington University, Georgetown University and Howard University. Investigators from the four institutions will access the center, which includes hoteling laboratory space for investigators whose laboratories are not on-site but are utilizing the core facilities — Cell and Tissue Microscopy, Genomics and Bioinformatics, and Inducible Pluripotent Stem Cells.

“While we have explored outsourcing some of these cores, especially genomics, we found that expertise, management, training and technical support needed for pediatric research requires on-site cores,” said Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., interim chief academic officer, interim director of the Children’s National Research Institute, and principal investigator for the DC-IDDRC. “The facility is designed to support pediatric studies that are intimately connected with our community. We operate in a highly diverse environment, addressing issues of health equity through research.”

The RIC provides graduate students, postdocs and trainees with unique training opportunities, expanding the workforce and talent of new investigators in the D.C. area. Young investigators will have job opportunities as research assistants and facility managers as well. The new labs will support these researchers so they can tackle pressing questions in pediatric research by integrating pre-clinical and clinical models.

Phase II will place genetic and neuroscience research initiatives of the DC-IDDRC at the forefront to treat a variety of pediatric developmental disorders. Other Children’s National research centers will also benefit from this additional space. The clinical and research campuses will be physically and electronically integrated with new informatics and video-communication systems.

The total projected cost of Phase II is $180 million, with design and construction to take up to three years to complete once started.

illustration of Research & Innovation Campus

Phase II will place genetic and neuroscience research initiatives of the DC-IDDRC at the forefront to treat a variety of pediatric developmental disorders. Other Children’s National research centers will also benefit from this additional space. The clinical and research campuses will be physically and electronically integrated with new informatics and video-communication systems.

boy with a chromosomal developmental disability.

NIH award will support intellectual and developmental disabilities research at Children’s National

boy with a chromosomal developmental disability.

Children’s National Hospital announces a $7 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to support the DC Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (DC-IDDRC).

Children’s National Hospital announces a $7 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to support the DC Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (DC-IDDRC). Through this award, the DC-IDDRC will enhance the recruitment and training of investigators, generate innovation and promote transdisciplinary research to facilitate the development, implementation and dissemination of new diagnostic and therapeutic advances for the care of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The DC-IDDRC, led by Children’s National in partnership with George Washington University, Howard University and Georgetown University, is one of only 14 IDDRCs in the United States funded by NICHD. This long standing NICHD program supports researchers whose goals are to advance understanding of a variety of conditions and topics related to intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Children’s National cares for one of the largest cohorts of children with developmental disabilities in the U.S. — which uniquely positions us to lead the way in both care and research of developmental disabilities in young children,” said Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., interim chief academic officer and interim director of the Children’s National Research Institute, and principal investigator for the DC-IDDRC.

The research strategy for this period will address three key areas: neural development and neurodevelopmental disorders, fetal and neonatal brain injury and genetic disorders by leveraging the core facilities and core innovation — including the Genomics and Bioinformatics Core, Cell and Tissue Microscopy Core, Neuroimaging Core, Clinical Translational Core and Neurobehavioral Evaluation Core.

“In spite of tremendous advances in our understanding of how abnormalities in brain development cause neurodevelopmental disorders and developmental disabilities, integrated knowledge in all these areas of research is still lacking. In particular, it is still unknown how specific genetic defects and cellular abnormalities result in behavioral phenotypes,” said Gallo.

One in six children suffers from a chronic, complex neurodevelopmental disability — conditions such as intellectual disability, learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. For 20 years, the DC-IDDRC has been a home for researchers from different specialties and different institutions to discover new therapies and treatments for children with these types of neurodevelopmental disabilities.

“The DC-IDDRC promises to be a great vehicle to spawn new research and collaborative networks for D.C. area investigators,” said Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., vice provost for faculty and professor at Georgetown University. “We will be examining whether a behavioral intervention to enhance self-regulation in adolescents with Autism changes how they learn and use computational modeling to understand learning strategy and identify associated changes in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging.”

The robust relationships and spirit of cooperation built over two decades of collaboration have laid a strong groundwork for the establishment of the expansive post-doctoral training program and continuous growth of the research programs within the DC-IDDRC. Gallo continues his efforts in expanding access to these programs and building a sustainable pipeline of young scholars from diverse backgrounds. The partnership between Children’s National and Howard University continues to play a crucial role in these goals.

The DC-IDDRC continues to work toward translating research findings into novel approaches and personalized treatments for people with developmental disabilities and their caregivers. This work will be amplified when the DC-IDDRC moves into the expanded facility at the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, which houses startup incubator programs and other support for device innovation.

3d illustration of blood cells, plasmodium causing malaria disease

International projects spearheaded by Children’s National Neurology leaders

NIH approves grant for clinical trial on pediatric cerebral malaria in Malawi

3d illustration of blood cells, plasmodium causing malaria disease

Cerebral malaria, when patients lapse into coma after developing a malaria infection, is the most severe neurological complication of infection with Plasmodium falciparum.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved a $5.8 million grant for a Phase I/IIa randomized clinical trial of 6-diazo-5-oxo-L-norleucine (DON), a new medication for pediatric cerebral malaria. Douglas Postels, M.D., neurologist at Children’s National Hospital, will serve as the trial’s principal investigator. The clinical trial will enroll participants in Blantyre, Malawi.

More than 400,000 people die each year from malaria. Cerebral malaria, when patients lapse into coma after developing a malaria infection, is the most severe neurological complication of infection with Plasmodium falciparum. Many children who survive are left suffering from neurological complications because of the disease, leaving some unable to walk, see or go to school. Dr. Postels and others are seeking to initiate this clinical trial with the primary goal to save lives and improve the quality of life for children who survive the disease.

“The purpose of this study is to see if DON is safe in the Malawian population,” Dr. Postels said, noting that adult participants will be enrolled in the first year and children subsequently. “Once the medication has proven to be safe, our intention is to expand this research elsewhere in Africa allowing us to enroll more children and evaluate whether DON decreases the likelihood of death or neurological disability in pediatric cerebral malaria.”

DON was originally tested 50 years ago as an anti-cancer agent but was recently repurposed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for pediatric cerebral malaria. The current clinical trial is a collaborative project with the NIAID scientists who performed the pre-clinical testing with DON.

“There are currently no adjunctive treatments, used in combination with intravenous anti-malarial medications, that decrease death or disability in pediatric cerebral malaria,” Dr. Postels said. “Our hope is that DON will be the “magic bullet” that helps these critically ill children.”

Improving access to epilepsy care in Ethiopia

Over the next three years, Tesfaye Zelleke, M.D., neurophysiologist at Children’s National Hospital, the Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program team and the Children’s National Global Health Initiative will create a sustainable program to reduce the epilepsy treatment gap in Ethiopia in collaboration with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health.

In a three-tier approach, the program is looking to help children in the country benefit from the increased access to the treatment and care for epilepsy, the most common neurologic disorder affecting about 1% of the population.

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in Africa with very limited access to epilepsy care — there are a handful of pediatric neurologists for a population of over 120 million. Only few referral hospitals have neurology clinics and those clinics are largely concentrated in Addis Ababa, the capital city. Improving access to epilepsy care in resource poor countries like Ethiopia would require utilizing non-neurologist providers, a task-shifting model.

“In the first year, we will focus on creating an epilepsy center of excellence, training of trainers (local non-neurologist providers), create treatment guidelines for epilepsy, and produce health education material for families and public,” said Dr. Zelleke. “In the subsequent years, we plan to expand to other areas outside of Addis Ababa — the Ethiopian capital — and collaborate with epilepsy advocacy groups to continue to increase access to care.”

After the three years, Dr. Zelleke and the team have envisioned working closely with the country’s Ministry of Health to further the impact of the project at a national level.

fetus in utero

Loss of placental hormone linked to brain and social behavior changes

fetus in uteroPreterm birth has been shown to increase the risk of autism spectrum disorders and other developmental problems, particularly in males. The more premature a baby is, the greater the risk of either motor or cognitive deficits. What does the preterm baby lose that is so critical to long-term outcomes?

A new pre-clinical study suggests that one factor may be the loss of a placental hormone that the developing brain would normally see in the second half of pregnancy.

The study is the first to provide direct evidence that loss of a placental hormone alters long-term brain development.

In the study, researchers in the laboratory of Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., now at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and previously at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., found that reducing amounts of a single hormone, called allopregnanolone (ALLO), in the placenta caused brain and behavior changes in male offspring that resemble changes seen in some people with autism spectrum disorder.

The study also found that both brain structure and behavioral changes in the subjects could be prevented with a single injection of ALLO in late pregnancy.

“Our study provides new and intriguing insights into how the loss of placental hormones—which happens in preterm birth or if the placenta stops working well during pregnancy—can lead to long-term structural changes in the brain that increase the risk for autism or other neuropsychiatric disorders,” says lead author Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., assistant professor of neonatal sciences in the Department of Pediatrics at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “What’s encouraging is that these disorders may be preventable if diagnosed and treated early.”

The study was published online August 16 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The placenta is an organ that provides the fetus with oxygen and nutrients and removes waste products. It also produces hormones, including high levels of ALLO in late pregnancy that may influence brain development. Penn, now the L. Stanley James Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and chief of neonatology at Columbia and New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, coined the term “neuroplacentology” to describe this new field of research connecting placental function to brain development.

About one in 10 infants is born prematurely (and is thus deprived of normal levels of ALLO and other hormones), and many more pregnancies have poor placental function.

For this study, the researchers created a pre-clinical model in which they were able to selectively decrease the production of ALLO during pregnancy so that some developing pups were exposed to sufficient placental ALLO while others were not. Although male and female fetuses were both subjected to ALLO deficiency, only male subjects showed autism-like behaviors after birth. Working with collaborators in Washington, D.C., France, and Canada, the Penn laboratory analyzed brain development and long-term behavioral outcomes in the offspring.

ALLO reduction led to cerebellum changes, autism-like behaviors

The male subjects that lacked placental ALLO had structural changes in the cerebellum, a brain region that coordinates movement and has been linked to autism, while their littermates did not.

“In particular, we observed thickening of the myelin sheaths, the lipid coating that protects nerve fibers and speeds up neural signaling,” Vacher says. The same type of thickening is also known to occur transiently in the cerebellum of some boys with autism.

The degree of myelin thickening in juvenile male subjects correlated with abnormal behavior, the researchers also found. The more the sheath was thickened (as measured by myelin protein levels), the more the male subjects exhibited autism-like behaviors, such as decreased sociability and repetitive activities.

“Our experimental model demonstrates that losing placental ALLO alters cerebellar development, including white matter development. Cerebellar white matter development occurs primarily after birth, so connecting a change in placental function during pregnancy with lingering impacts on later brain development is a particularly striking result,” says Penn.

“The findings provide a new way to understand poor placental function. Subtle but important changes during pregnancy or after delivery may set in motion neurodevelopmental disorders that children experience later in life.”

Similarities with human tissue

To determine if similar changes occur in infants, the researchers also examined post-mortem cerebellar tissues from preterm and full-term infants who had died soon after birth. Analysis of these human tissues showed similar changes in brain proteins when cerebellum from male babies born preterm were compared to male full-term babies.

“This study is an important first step in understanding how placental hormones may contribute to specific human neurobehavioral outcomes. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with Dr. Penn and her team to help define how cerebellar neurons and glia respond to environmental factors, including placental function, that can compromise the developing brain,” says study co-author Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., interim chief academic officer at Children’s National Hospital and interim director of the Children’s National Research Institute.

Hormone injection reduced autism symptoms

ALLO’s therapeutic potential was then tested in the preclinical model.

Male offspring of the pre-clinical model given a single injection of ALLO in late pregnancy had fewer autism-like behaviors, the researchers found. Similar results were seen after an injection of muscimol, a drug that enhances the function of GABA receptors—the same receptors that respond to ALLO. Myelin protein levels in the developing cerebellum also normalized with the treatment.

“Identifying when key hormone levels are abnormal, and figuring out how and when to adjust these levels, provides an opportunity to intervene,” Penn says. “Performing additional studies with our pre-clinical model, and measuring hormone levels in moms and babies, may lead to earlier treatment to reduce or prevent long-term cognitive and behavioral impairments in high-risk fetuses and newborns.”

A version of this story appeared on the Columbia University newsroom.

The study is titled “Placental endocrine function shapes cerebellar development and social behavior.” The other contributors: Helene Lacaille (Columbia), Jiaqi J. O’Reilly (Columbia), Jacquelyn Salzbank (Columbia), Dana Bakalar (National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD), Sonia Sebaoui (Children’s National Hospital, Washington, DC), Philippe Liere (University Paris Saclay, Le Kremlin‐Bicêtre Cedex, France), Cheryl Clarkson-Paredes (George Washington University, Washington, DC), Toru Sasaki (Children’s National Hospital), Aaron Sathyanesan (Children’s National Hospital), Panagiotis Kratimenos (Children’s National Hospital), Jacob Ellegood (Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, ON), Jason Lerch (Hospital for Sick Children and University of Oxford, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, UK), Yuka Imamura (Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, PA), Anastas Popratiloff (George Washington University), Kazue Hashimoto-Torii (Children’s National Hospital and George Washington University), and Michael Schumacher (University Paris Saclay).

Yuan Zhu

Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., receives Outstanding Scientist Award

Yuan Zhu

The George Washington University (GW) Cancer Center recently announced the selection of the 2021 GW Cancer Center Awards, recognizing excellence in research, mentorship and early career contributions.

The GW Cancer Center Outstanding Scientist Award was presented to Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) and Children’s National Hospital. The award is presented to faculty members who make a noteworthy contribution in the areas of basic science, clinical science, translational science or population science.

In his nomination, Dr. Zhu was cited for his contributions to the understanding of the mechanisms underlying the development of tumors and altered brain development arising in the setting of the inherited condition neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1). “Throughout his career, Dr. Zhu has had a remarkable consistency of focus in his scholarly work, where he has sought to advance new molecular and mechanistic insights to understand the biological basis of NF1 and the cancers arising in individuals affected by this genetic disease.”

You can find a full list of award winners here.

Hands holding letters that spell autism

Gene associated with autism affects social interactions differently in males and females

Hands holding letters that spell autism

The loss function of a gene associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Foxp2, impacts brain circuits that control olfactory processing, social interaction, mating, aggressive and parental behaviors in a pre-clinical model. Sex differences were most notable in females with low social interaction and higher aggression behavior compared to males, suggesting ASD-like behavior in females, according to the study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

ASD affects social communication and behavior in approximately 1 in 68 people, many of the symptoms appear in the first two years of life, and the disorder is mostly seen in males. Recent studies suggest that FOXP2 mutations have been implicated in a subset of individuals with ASD.

“Our work provides insights into how this gene may function mechanistically to control social interactions in both males and females,” said Joshua Corbin, Ph.D., principal investigator at Children’s National Hospital and senior author. “Foxp2 is an autism susceptibility gene, thus potentially revealing insights into the neurobiological underpinnings of deficits in social communication in neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Dopamine (DA) also plays a role in motivation and reward-seeking behavior. Herrero et al. further found that patterns of Foxp2+ cell activation in the amygdala, a structure involved in social motivation, differed in females and males in response to DA, with greater activation in females. Although how this ties together with the function of Foxp2 in social behavior remains to be elucidated, this finding suggests an intriguing link between this important neuropeptide and Foxp2 function.

FOXP2 mutations in humans are associated with disorders affecting speech and language. The scientific community has extensively studied the Foxp2 gene in other brain regions, most notably those involved in language production, such as the cerebral cortex and basal ganglia (striatum). Still, little is known regarding the function of Foxp2 in male or female social behavior, which has a large amygdala component.

“Rational interventions for human disorders and diseases relies on an understanding of the underlying biology of these conditions,” said Corbin. “Our work presents an important step toward elucidating the genetic pathways required for neurotypical social behavior.”

To better understand the role that Foxp2 plays in the amygdala-linked social behaviors, the researchers used a comprehensive panel of behavioral tests in male and female subjects. The research team relied on visual observation and video recordings to collect and score the behavioral data, work that was conducted as part of Children’s National NIH funded DC-IDDRC.

The set of behavioral tests included a “social interaction assay” that utilized a 3-chamber device, an “olfactory habituation and discrimination assay,” which pooled several odors with a cotton swab and a “maternal aggression assay” that measured aggressive encounters of a lactating female to a male intruder.

The researchers also compared the ex vivo tissue samples of female and male subjects to assess protein changes in the amygdala that might affect the activation of DA pathways.

blood glucose monitoring system

Patterns of continuous glucose monitoring use in young children after T1D diagnosis

blood glucose monitoring system

The findings suggest that, when clinically appropriate, continuous glucose monitoring initiation near or at the time of diagnosis benefits glycemic outcomes in young children when followed by sustained use.

Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) is a blood glucose monitoring device worn on the body that is linked to positive glycemic outcomes in people with Type 1 diabetes (T1D). However, very little research has examined CGM use and glycemic outcomes in young children, particularly those newly diagnosed with T1D.

A new Diabetes Technology and Therapeutics study led by Randi Streisand, Ph.D., C.D.C.E.S., Chief of Psychology and Behavioral Health at Children’s National Hospital, and others identified four meaningful trajectories of CGM use among young children across 18-months post-T1D diagnosis: those who “always” used CGM; those who got on CGM later but stayed on it (“late/stable”); those who used CGM inconsistently; and those who “never” used CGM. The investigators conducted a study of 157 parents of young children (1-6 years) newly diagnosed with T1D who enrolled in a behavioral intervention.

Importantly, the authors found that those with private insurance were more likely than those with only public insurance to be in the “always” and “late/stable” groups (as opposed to the “never” group). Those in the “always” and “late/stable” groups also had better glycemic outcomes than those in the “never group” at 18-months post-T1D diagnosis.

“This research highlights that insurance type can be a barrier to accessing CGM,” Dr. Streisand noted. “Further, this is one of the first studies, among newly diagnosed young children, to show that CGM initiation at diagnosis or near diagnosis followed by sustained use is associated with better glycemic outcomes compared to never initiating CGM, supporting findings from other studies conducted with older youth.”

The findings inform clinical care with patients as it suggests that, when clinically appropriate, CGM initiation near or at the time of diagnosis benefits glycemic outcomes in young children when followed by sustained use. This is the only study to examine patterns of CGM use among 1-6-year-old children newly diagnosed with T1D over the first 18-months post-diagnosis.

“It was exciting to find differences in glycemic outcomes based on CGM initiation and use in this unique population,” Dr. Streisand said. However, the authors concluded that, given the health benefits of CGM, further exploration of barriers to CGM access and use among some families is needed.

In addition to Dr. Streisand, other Children’s National co-authors include Brynn Marks, M.D., M.S. HPEd.; Carrie Tully, Ph.D.Maureen Monaghan, Ph.D., C.D.E. , and Christine Wang, Ph.D.

Miriam Bornhorst

Miriam Bornhorst, M.D., receives DOD New Investigator Award

Miriam Bornhorst

Miriam Bornhorst, M.D., clinical director of the Gilbert Neurofibromatosis Institute at Children’s National Hospital, received the Department of Defense’s Neurofibromatosis Research Program New Investigator Award.

This award, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, has granted $450,000 in funds which Dr. Bornhorst hopes to use towards a study for patients with Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (NF1).

“There is very little known about metabolism in NF1, but we know that abnormalities in metabolism can not only affect a person’s overall health, but may also influence how tumors develop and grow,” Dr. Bornhorst explained.

Patients with NF1 can have defining clinical features related to growth and energy metabolism, such as short stature, low weight and decreased bone mineral density, findings that are more prominent in patients with high plexiform neurofibroma (a nerve sheath tumor) burden. The mechanism for this metabolic phenotype and its association with plexiform neurofibromas is not currently understood.

Preliminary data and the work of others suggest that the MAPK pathway may play a role in metabolism and Mek-inhibitor (MEKi) treatment, which decreases activity of the MAPK pathway and promotes weight gain in patients with NF1. Dr. Bornhorst’s study will be the first to explore global metabolism in NF1, determine which metabolic pathways are most active in plexiform neurofibromas and define how metabolomic signatures change during MEKi treatment.

“These findings will improve management and may lead to novel treatment options for patients with NF1,” she said. “It is my hope that the grant funding received for my study will not only allow me to generate data that will answer questions about metabolism in NF1, but foster interest in this topic so there are more opportunities for researchers in the future.”

The NFRP was initiated in 1996 to provide support for research of exceptional scientific merit that promotes the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of neurofibromatosis (NF) including NF type 1 (NF1) and type 2 (NF2) and schwannomatosis. Since it was first offered, 346 new Investigator Award applications have been received and only 79 have been recommended for funding – with Children’s National receiving one in the latest grant cycle. The Gilbert Family Neurofibromatosis Institute at Children’s National is one of the world’s largest programs and the longest standing program in the United States.

Opinions, interpretations, conclusions and recommendations are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Department of Defense.

neurons

Recommendations for the treatment of pediatric NMDAR antibody encephalitis

neurons

NMDA receptor antibody encephalitis (NMDARE) is one of the most common autoimmune encephalitides characterized by a recognizable constellation of neurologic and psychiatric features alongside positive NMDAR antibodies.

In a new study published in Neuroimmunology and Neuroinflammation, authors, including Elizabeth Wells, M.D., vice president of Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine Center at Children’s National Hospital, created a consensus recommendation for the treatment of pediatric NMDARE, which was pragmatic and relevant to a global community and could serve as a practical decision support tool for the clinician confronted with this rare and challenging condition.

The authors conclude that their recommendations for the management of pediatric NMDARE aim to standardize the treatment and provide practical guidance for clinicians, rather than absolute rules. A similar recommendation could be applicable to adult patients.

Read the full article in Neuroimmunology and Neuroinflammation.

boy with autism blowing bubbles

Autistic youth self-reporting critical to understanding of executive function challenges

boy with autism blowing bubbles

Young people with autism are distinctly aware of their own challenges in areas such as flexibility, working memory and inhibition—abilities known collectively as “executive function,” according to the first study to measure and compare self-reports in these areas to more traditional reporting from parents.

Young people with autism are distinctly aware of their own challenges in areas such as flexibility, working memory and inhibition — abilities known collectively as “executive function,” according to the first study to measure and compare self-reports in these areas to more traditional reporting from parents. The study appears in the Journal Autism.

While autism research has started to focus on incorporating the experiences of autistic people themselves through self-reporting and greater inclusion in the design and execution of related research, this is the first time that a study has definitively captured self-reports of executive functions directly from young people with autism.

The study, which included 197 autistic youth, found that while both youth and their parents are in basic agreement about which areas of executive functioning that individual youth struggle with most, parents tended to report higher levels of impairment than the youth reported themselves. Executive function is related to a person’s ability to complete tasks such as adjusting to change, making a plan, getting organized and following through, as well as basic daily tasks like getting up and getting dressed or making small talk.

“While parents are reporting on outwardly observed behaviors in the context of home/community, for example, youth are reporting on their inner experiences across many contexts,” said Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., first author on the study and director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Hospital. “Our findings support the idea that autistic youth may be drawing their conclusions from different environmental data and cognitive frameworks than their parents, which adds a new dimension to our understanding of executive function in people with autism.”

The data are especially compelling because youth and parent reports of executive function were gathered on parallel measures with consistent items and factor structure, allowing for a true one-to-one comparison between youth and parent reporting.

“These kids are very aware of the areas where they struggle,” Dr. Kenworthy said. “And the findings from this study further elevate the importance of making sure that assessments of executive function take into account the perspective of the youth themselves, which can provide powerful insights into the interventions that they may benefit from the most.”

The study also compared reports from autistic youth to reports from both neurotypical youth and those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), another condition where executive functioning skills can be challenged. There were distinct differences between all three groups—and the challenges profiled by youth with autism and those with ADHD were distinct from each other. For example, autistic youth reported greater challenges with flexibility, emotional control and self-monitoring than those with ADHD, who reported greater struggles with working memory.

The authors noted that future studies should include more performance-based measures, as well as larger numbers of females and people with intellectual disabilities to better understand how self-reporting can play a role in understanding and helping these specific groups. Additionally, developing new measures that capture the inner experience of autism by engaging autistic people in their creation could provide deeper insight into how young people with autism experience the world and how interventions designed to assist them are working (or not).

“These data provide clear evidence of the executive functioning challenges actually experienced by autistic youth as well as the primary role inflexibility plays in the lives of these young people,” the authors concluded. “This additional perspective and context for the experiences of these executive functioning challenges are of high clinical value and complement more frequently gathered assessments in ways never captured before.”

schematic of Mueller polarimetric imaging

Novel technique improved nerve visualization in head and neck surgery

In a pre-clinical model, researchers from Children’s National Hospital found that the Mueller polarimetric imaging, a novel technique that improves image contrast, may help identify nerves from other surrounding tissues during neck and head surgical procedures, avoiding accidental nerve damage.

“This technology holds great promise for the possibility of a truly noninvasive imaging approach and may help improve surgical outcomes by potentially reducing inadvertent, ill effects of nerve injuries in head and neck surgery,” said Bo Ning, Ph.D., R&D engineer at Children’s National and lead author of the study.

This pre-clinical study presents the first application of a full-field polarimetric imaging technique in vivo during head and neck surgery to highlight the vagus nerve (VN) and a branch that supplies all the intrinsic muscles to the larynx, known as recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN).

“Unlike conventional nerve identification devices, this technique is noninvasive and less interruptive to intact tissues without disrupting surgical workflows,” said Ning et al. “Since the technique has an easy mechanism and promising performance in our study, this novel method holds great potential for real-time, noninvasive, and convenient nerve visualization.”

While some promising methods use polarimetric imaging for tissue characterizations, the current literature is still limited to ex vivo conditions due to the system complications and prolonged acquisition speeds.

“Recently, the industry released a new polarimetric camera, which is compact and allows fast and high-definition polarimetric imaging through simple snapshots. Enlightened by this technical advance, we have developed a practical polarimetric imaging method,” said Ning, who also develops compact and practical imaging systems for surgical innovation, including 3D, fluorescent, laser speckle and hyperspectral techniques. “It allows fast polarimetric analysis and can acquire birefringence maps over the whole field of view within 100 milliseconds, which provides an appropriate speed for directly surgical use.”

The new approach proofs that the concept is feasible to set up in live subjects during head and neck surgery, which can also be easily adapted for other surgeries. Among the seven subjects, the VNs and RLNs were successfully differentiated from arteries and other surrounding tissues.

Additional co-authors from Children’s National include Itai Katz, Ph.D., M.S., R&D staff engineer III; Anthony D. Sandler, M.D., Senior Vice President and Surgeon-in-Chief; Richard Jaepyeong Cha, Ph.D., research faculty assistant professor.

schematic of Mueller polarimetric imaging

Researchers at Children’s National used a novel technique that improves image contrast, which may help improve surgical outcomes.