Neurology and Neurosurgery

illustration of brain with stem cells

Innovative phase 1 trial to protect brains of infants with CHD during and after surgery

A novel phase 1 trial looking at how best to optimize brain development of babies with congenital heart disease (CHD) is currently underway at Children’s National Hospital.

Children with CHD sometimes demonstrate delay in the development of cognitive and motor skills. This can be a result of multiple factors including altered prenatal oxygen delivery, brain blood flow and genetic factors associated with surgery including exposure to cardiopulmonary bypass, also known as the heart lung machine.

This phase 1 trial is the first to deliver mesenchymal stromal cells from bone marrow manufactured in a lab (BM-MSC) into infants already undergoing cardiac surgery via cardiopulmonary bypass. The hypothesis is that by directly infusing the MSCs into the blood flow to the brain, more MSCs quickly and efficiently reach the subventricular zone and other areas of the brain that are prone to inflammation. The trial is open to eligible patients ages newborn to six months of age.


Learn more in this overview video.

The trial is part of a $2.5 million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) led by Richard Jonas, M.D.Catherine Bollard, M.B.Ch.B., M.D., and Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D.. The project involves collaboration between the Prenatal Cardiology program of Children’s National Heart Institute, the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation.

“NIH supported studies in our laboratory have shown that MSC therapy may be extremely helpful in improving brain development in animal models after cardiac surgery,” says Dr. Ishibashi. “MSC infusion can help reduce inflammation including prolonged microglia activation that can occur during surgery that involves the heart lung machine.”

Staff from the Cellular Therapy Laboratory, led by director Patrick Hanley, Ph.D., manufactured the BM-MSC at the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, led by Dr. Bollard.

The phase 1 safety study will set the stage for a phase 2 effectiveness trial of this highly innovative MSC treatment aimed at reducing brain damage, minimizing neurodevelopmental disabilities and improving the postoperative course in children with CHD. The resulting improvement in developmental outcome and lessened behavioral impairment will be of enormous benefit to individuals with CHD.

For more information about this new treatment, contact the clinical research team: Gil Wernovsky, M.D., Shriprasad Deshpande, M.D., Maria Fortiz.

MRI of the patient's head close-up

Early versus late MRI in newborn brain injury

MRI of the patient's head close-up

A single magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) performed in the first week after birth is adequate to assess brain injury and offer prognostic information in newborn infants with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) treated with therapeutic hypothermia, according to a new study published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

A collaborative team of neonatology, neurology and neuroradiology experts from Children’s National Hospital that included Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Taeun Chang, M.D., and An N. Massaro, M.D., came together to evaluate the agreement in brain injury findings between early and late MRI in newborn infants with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) treated with therapeutic hypothermia. The team then compared the ability of early versus late MRI to predict early neurodevelopmental outcomes.

This was a prospective longitudinal study of 49 patients with HIE who underwent therapeutic hypothermia and had MRI performed at both <7 and ≥7 days of age. MRIs were reviewed by an experienced neuroradiologist and assigned brain injury severity scores according to established systems. Scores for early and late MRIs were assessed for agreement using the kappa statistic. The ability of early and late MRI scores to predict death or developmental delay at 15-30 months of age was assessed by logistic regression analyses.

The results of the study found agreement between the early and late MRI was substantial to near perfect (k>0.75, p<0.001) across MRI scoring systems. In cases of discrepant scoring, early MRI was more likely to identify severe injury when compared with late MRI. Early MRI scores were more consistently predictive of adverse outcomes compared with late MRI.

Read the full study in The Journal of Pediatrics.

structure of EGFR

Study suggests EGFR inhibition reverses alterations induced by hypoxia

structure of EGFR

The study suggests that specific molecular responses modulated by EGFR (seen here) may be targeted as a therapeutic strategy for HX injury in the neonatal brain.

Hypoxic (HX) encephalopathy is a major cause of death and neurodevelopmental disability in newborns. While it is known that decreased oxygen and energy failure in the brain lead to neuronal cell death, the cellular and molecular mechanisms of HX-induced neuronal and glial cell damage are still largely undefined.

Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., and colleagues from the Center for Neuroscience Research at the Children’s National Research Institute, discovered increased expression of activated-epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) in affected cortical areas of neonates with HX and decided to further investigate the functional role of EGFR-related signaling pathways in the cellular and molecular changes induced by HX in the cerebral cortex.

The researchers found that HX-induced activation of EGFR and Ca2+/calmodulin kinase IV (CaMKIV) caused cell death and pathological alterations in neurons and glia. EGFR blockade inhibited CaMKIV activation, attenuated neuronal loss, increased oligodendrocyte proliferation and reversed HX-induced astrogliosis.

The researchers also performed, for the first time, high-throughput transcriptomic analysis of the cortex to define molecular responses to HX and to uncover genes specifically involved in EGFR signaling in brain injury. Their results indicate that specific molecular responses modulated by EGFR may be targeted as a therapeutic strategy for HX injury in the neonatal brain.

This study defines many new exciting avenues of scientific exploration to further elucidate the beneficial impact of EGFR blockade on perinatal brain injury at the cellular and molecular levels. This analysis could potentially result in the identification of new therapeutic targets associated with EGFR signaling in the developing mammalian brain that are linked with specific long-term abnormalities caused by perinatal brain injury.

Children’s National researchers who contributed to this study include Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ioannis Koutroulis, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., Susan Knoblach, Ph.D., Payal Banerjee, Surajit Bhattacharya, Ph.D., Maria Almira-Suarez, M.D., and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Read the full article in iScience.

newborn

Predicting risk for infantile spasms after acute symptomatic neonatal seizures

newborn

Infantile spasms (IS) is a severe epilepsy in early childhood. Early treatment of IS provides the best chance of seizure remission and favorable developmental outcome.

Taeun Chang, M.D., director of the Neonatal Neurology and Neurocritical Care Program at Children’s National Hospital, participated in a study with other national pediatric experts which aimed to develop a prediction rule to accurately predict which neonates with acute symptomatic seizures will develop IS.

The group of researchers found that multiple potential predictors were associated with IS, including Apgar scores, EEG features, seizure characteristics, MRI abnormalities and clinical status at hospital discharge. The final model born from this work included three risk factors: (a) severely abnormal EEG or ≥3 days with seizures recorded on EEG, (b) deep gray or brainstem injury on MRI and (c) abnormal tone on discharge exam.

The significance of these findings is that IS risk after acute symptomatic neonatal seizures can be stratified using commonly available clinical data. No child without risk factors, vs >50% of those with all three factors, developed IS. This risk prediction rule may be valuable for clinical counseling as well as for selecting participants for clinical trials to prevent post‐neonatal epilepsy. This tailored approach may lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment and improve outcomes for a devastating early life epilepsy.

Read the full study in Epilepsia.

Roger Packer at lectern

Roger Packer, M.D., presents keynote address at First International Pakistan Neuro-Oncology Symposium

Roger Packer at lectern

During his presentation, he addressed attendees on the topic of the “Modern Management of Medulloblastoma,” discussing results of recently completed clinical trials and the implications of new molecular insights into medulloblastoma, the most common childhood malignant brain tumor.

In late November 2020,  Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neurosciences and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Hospital, presented as the inaugural keynote speaker for the First International Pakistan Neuro-Oncology Symposium in Karachi, Pakistan.

During his virtual presentation, he addressed attendees on the topic of the “Modern Management of Medulloblastoma,” discussing results of recently completed clinical trials and the implications of new molecular insights into medulloblastoma, the most common childhood malignant brain tumor.

The symposium attracted participants from 57 countries across the globe. There were over 1,000 attendees and as a result of the success of this symposium, there is now a monthly pediatric neuro-oncology lecture series. Dr. Packer agreed to lecture again to the group in mid-January 2021 on “Pediatric Neural Tumors Associated with NF1” as part of an international lecture series hosted by the Aga Khan University in Pakistan.

This is one of multiple national and international activities led by the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National Hospital. Directed by Dr. Packer with Eugene Hwang, M.D. as his co-director, and who is associate division chief of oncology at Children’s National Hospital, the multidisciplinary institute holds a monthly tumor board for colleagues at Dmitry Rogachev National Research Center and the Burdenko Neurosurgery Institute in Moscow, Russia, and a monthly brain tumor board coordinated by the Pediatric Oncology Program for colleagues across São Paulo, Brazil.

This also leads to a bi-monthly regional tumor board, which is attended by staff of the National Cancer Institute, the University of Virginia, Inova Children’s Hospital, the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters Health System, Yale University, Geisinger Medical Center, Georgetown University and Carilion Clinic.

Research & Innovation Campus

Virginia Tech, Children’s National Hospital award $100,000 to fund collaborative cancer research pilot projects

Research & Innovation Campus

This pilot research program represents a growing academic research partnership between Children’s National and Virginia Tech. Last year, the two institutions announced that Virginia Tech will establish a biomedical research facility on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.

Children’s National Hospital and Virginia Tech have awarded two $50,000 one-year pilot grants to multi-institutional teams of scientists for pediatric brain cancer research.

The inter-institutional program, which launched in December, promotes cross-disciplinary collaborations among researchers at both institutions. At Virginia Tech, the program is part of the Virginia Tech Cancer Research Alliance. Financial support for the program was provided by the Offices of the Physician-in-Chief and Chief Academic Officer at Children’s National, and by Virginia Tech’s Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology.

“We were delighted to see so many innovative and competitive research proposals for our first round of pilot grants in the area of brain cancer. By forging new research collaborations with our partners at Children’s National, we hope to make major strides in addressing one of the most common and devastating groups of cancers in children,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, and the executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. “The pilot funding will bootstrap several programs to be able to acquire ongoing sustainable funding by providing the opportunity to test novel high impact ideas for new strategies for treating these disorders. There are simply too few good options for children in this space now and this partnership can change that for the better.”

The collaborative research initiative began through an agreement between the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the Children’s National Research Institute. The collaborative teams formed through a series of interactive discussions among Virginia Tech’s Cancer Research Alliance faculty members from the university’s Blacksburg and Roanoke campuses, and Children’s National’s neuro-oncology researchers.

“I am extremely excited by this collaboration between VT and CNH that is focused on pediatric brain tumors which is such an area of unmet need,” said Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B.,, director of Children’s National’s Center for Cancer and Immunology Research. “I am confident that the funded proposals will soon advance our understanding of pediatric brain tumors and, more importantly, facilitate more joint efforts between two world-class institutions which is especially timely with the development of the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.”

Yanxin Pei, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center for Cancer Immunology Research at Children’s National, and Liwu Li, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science, were awarded one of the pilot research grants to study how white blood cells called neutrophils are involved in metastatic MYC-driven medulloblastoma, an aggressive type of brain tumor in children that often resists conventional radiation and chemotherapies.

Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., the Gilbert Family Professor of Neurofibromatosis Research at Children’s National, and Susan Campbell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of animal and poultry sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, were awarded funds to study glioma-induced seizures in mice with a genetic mutation that inhibits the production of P53, a key protein involved in suppressing cancer cell growth and division.

The successful applicants will receive funding starting this month and are expected to deliver preliminary data to support an extramural research application by 2024.

This pilot research program represents a growing academic research partnership between Children’s National and Virginia Tech. Last year, the two institutions announced that Virginia Tech will establish a biomedical research facility on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. It will be the first research and innovation campus in the nation focused on pediatrics when it opens later this year and will house newly recruited teams of pediatric brain cancer researchers.

Liwu Li, Yanxin Pei, Susan Campbell, and Yuan Zhu

Liwu Li, Ph.D., Yanxin Pei, Ph.D., Susan Campbell, Ph.D., and Yuan Zhu, Ph.D., were awarded funding through the new pilot research program.

Lee Beers

Lee Beers, M.D., F.A.A.P, begins term as AAP president

Lee Beers

“The past year has been a stark reminder about the importance of partnership and working together toward common goals,” says Dr. Beers. “I am humbled and honored to be taking on this role at such a pivotal moment for the future health and safety of not only children, but the community at large.”

Lee Savio Beers, M.D., F.A.A.P., medical director of Community Health and Advocacy at the Child Health Advocacy Institute (CHAI) at Children’s National Hospital, has begun her term as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP is an organization of 67,000 pediatricians committed to the optimal physical, mental and social health and well-being for all children – from infancy to adulthood.

“The past year has been a stark reminder about the importance of partnership and working together toward common goals,” says Dr. Beers. “I am humbled and honored to be taking on this role at such a pivotal moment for the future health and safety of not only children, but the community at large.”

Dr. Beers has pledged to continue AAP’s advocacy and public policy efforts and to further enhance membership diversity and inclusion. Among her signature issues:

  • Partnering with patients, families, communities, mental health providers and pediatricians to co-design systems to bolster children’s resiliency and to alleviate growing pediatric mental health concerns.
  • Continuing to support pediatricians during the COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on education, pediatric practice support, vaccine delivery systems and physician wellness.
  • Implementation of the AAP’s Equity Agenda and Year 1 Equity Workplan.

Dr. Beers is looking forward to continuing her work bringing together the diverse voices of pediatricians, children and families as well as other organizations to support improving the health of all children.

“Dr. Beers has devoted her career to helping children,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and chief executive officer of Children’s National. “She has developed a national advocacy platform for children and will be of tremendous service to children within AAP national leadership.”

Read more about Dr. Beer’s career and appointment as president of the AAP.

Roger Packer with patient

A lifetime of achievements: Roger Packer, M.D.

Roger Packer with patient

Over the years, Dr. Packer and his team in Washington, D.C., have made meaningful contributions to children all around the world diagnosed with childhood brain tumors, including medulloblastoma and gliomas.

Earlier in December, Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neurosciences and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Hospital, received the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology at the meeting organized in Karuizawa, Japan. The prestigious recognition is a testament to the years of commitment and dedication Dr. Packer has devoted to the care of children with brain tumors and as such, have placed him as a top leader.

This award is a recognition of how the field has grown since the first International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Dr. Packer organized in Seattle in 1989. “It grew from a small gathering of investigators to now a multidisciplinary group of over 2,000 investigators,” Dr. Packer says.

Over the years, Dr. Packer and his team in Washington, D.C., have made meaningful contributions to children all around the world diagnosed with childhood brain tumors, including medulloblastoma and gliomas. These findings have contributed to an increase of the survival rate from 50% to over 80% for children with medulloblastoma. In addition, his contributions have led to newer molecular targeted therapies and improved the quality of life of children who are long-term survivors.

“The field, especially in the last decade, rapidly transitioned to a more biologically informed field,” Dr. Packer explains. “We are now utilizing new, exciting discoveries in biology and genetics to inform new approaches to treatment. This kind of transition gives us great hope for the future.”

In his early career, Dr. Packer worked with two neuro-oncology patients who died and would impact his decision to further study this field. At that time, there was minimal understanding of the nature of neuro-oncology diseases or how to best treat them. As a neurologist, he was frustrated by the lack of understanding and as a pediatrician, he was frustrated at the lack of ability to do success management.

“I saw this as a gap in my personal knowledge and found that the field was struggling to come up with new answers and new approaches,” he says. “But at the same time other, advances were being made in child cancer care, such as with leukemia. However, there was no wide focus on pediatric brain tumors.”

Combining his knowledge of neurology with his curiosity and relying on other leaders that surrounded him in the same field, Dr. Packer worked on driving this new work forward. Today, he is still heavily involved in the development of treatment protocols that are increasingly transitional for a variety of brain tumors, including low-grade and high-grade gliomas.

“With the help of our great colleagues at Children’s National, we continue to try to develop new means to treat these tumors, including immunological approaches and the incorporation in the use of novel means, such as low-intensity and high-intensity focused ultrasound,” he says. “We also have an excellent multidisciplinary team at Children’s National that has grown over the last decade some of whom are acknowledged national leaders in the fields of brain tumors, clinical research and clinical care. We also have a robust program focusing on the neurocognitive outcome of children and ways to intervene to ameliorate intellectual compromise and improve quality of life.”

DNA moleucle

Epigenetics and pediatric brain tumors

DNA moleucle

Over the last two decades the critical role of epigenetics in cancer biology has evolved significantly. In parallel, our understanding of the biology of many pediatric brain tumors and the central role of alterations in their epigenetic regulation has become an important area of discovery.

In an editorial in a special issue of the Journal of Neuro-OncologyRoger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neurosciences and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Hospital, looks at understanding the role of epigenetics and how they will further characterize pediatric brain tumors, open new therapeutic avenues for treatment and lead to true breakthroughs and cures for children.

person with brain tumor

Update on pediatric brain tumors

person with brain tumor

Over the last five years, there has been tremendous growth in the field of pediatric neuro-oncology with increasing understanding of the genetic and epigenetic heterogeneity of central nervous system (CNS) tumors. Attempts are underway to translate these insights into tumor-specific treatments. A recent review article in Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports by Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neurosciences and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Hospital, provided an update on the current landscape of pediatric brain tumors and the impact of novel molecular insights on classification, diagnostics and therapeutics.

neuron on teal background

Primary cilia safeguard cortical neurons from environmental stress-induced dendritic degeneration

neuron on teal background

Fetus and neonates are under the risk of exposure to various external agents, such as alcohol and anesthetics taken by the mother. However, primary cilia can protect neurons by activating cilia-localized molecular signaling that inhibits degeneration of neuronal processes, according to the study’s findings.

A new study led by Kazue Hashimoto-Torii, Ph.D. and Masaaki Torii, Ph.D., both principal investigators for the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Hospital, found that primary cilia – tiny hair-like protrusions from the body of neuronal cells – protect neurons in the developing brain from adverse impacts of prenatal exposure.

Fetus and neonates are under the risk of exposure to various external agents, such as alcohol and anesthetics taken by the mother. However, primary cilia can protect neurons by activating cilia-localized molecular signaling that inhibits degeneration of neuronal processes, according to the study’s findings.

“Remarkably, the developing brain is equipped with intrinsic cell protection that helps to minimize the adverse impacts of to various external agents,” said Dr. Hashimoto-Torii. “However, the mechanisms of such protection have been unclear. Our study provides the first evidence that the tiny hair-like organelle protects neurons in the perinatal brain from adverse impacts of such external agents taken by the mother.”

The findings suggest that subtle alterations in primary cilia due to genetic conditions may lead to various neurodevelopmental disorders if combined with exposure to external agents from the environment. The findings also suggest that ciliopathy patients who have abnormal ciliary function due to genetic causes may have increased risk of abnormal brain development upon exposure to external agents.

“Clarifying diverse roles of cilia provides essential information for clinicians and patients with potential deficits in primary cilia to take extra precautions to avoid the risks for long-term negative impacts of external factors,” Dr. Torii explained. “We hope that further studies will define the whole picture of cilia-mediated neuroprotection and help us to advance our understanding of its importance in the pathogenesis of neurodevelopmental disorders.

This may ultimately lead to the development of treatment for various neurodevelopmental disorders,” he added.

The uniqueness of the study stems from the investigation of the role of cilia in brain development at the risk of exposure to various external factors that occur in the real world. Little is known about how the normal and abnormal brain development progresses in an environment where many external factors interact with intrinsic cellular mechanisms.

The study is a collaboration with researchers at Yale University and Keio University, Japan. Other Children’s National researchers who contributed to this study include Seiji Ishii, Ph.D.; Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D.; Toru Sasaki, M.D., Ph.D.; Shahid Mohammad, Ph.D.; Hye Hwang; Edwin Tomy; and Fahad Somaa.

Maddox and family

Family love and the right care for neurofibromatosis type 1 give Maddox a fresh start

Maddox and family

Maddox and his family in early 2020.

13-year-old Maddox Gibson is learning to cook. He says he wants to be a chef and wants to make meals for people who need it most — the homeless and the hungry.

It makes sense that he’s eager to help people who need it. As a young child growing up in a group home in his native country of China, he knows firsthand how important that support can be. In 2017 at age 10, he found his own endless supply of love and support when he met and was adopted by the Gibson family.

Zhen Chao, now called Maddox, was born in China with a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis type 1 that can cause painful or disfiguring tumors called plexiform neurofibromas. Zhen Chao had two on his head when he arrived — on his scalp and on his left optic nerve — which had been largely untreated for most of his life in China. On top of that, his right leg had been fractured and not fixed properly years before, causing him pain and weakness that left him wheelchair bound.

Adoptive mom Lindsey, a registered nurse, knew he would need special care to meet all the unique challenges he faced, and she’d done her homework — he needed the expertise of Miriam Bornhorst, M.D.,  and the Gilbert Family Neurofibromatosis Institute at Children’s National Hospital to help him thrive in his new life in the U.S. Since shortly after he came to the U.S., Lindsey has been driving Maddox the 6-plus hours from their home in North Carolina to Washington, D.C., regularly, to get care for all of his health challenges.

Maddox’s optic neurofibroma was too large when he arrived at Children’s National for a simple surgical removal. Due to her role as the lead investigator on a cutting edge clinical trial for the orphan drug selumetinib — a so-called MEK inhibitor that has shown early promise at reducing the cell growth of tumors like plexiform neurofibromas, Dr. Bornhorst enrolled Maddox in a compassionate use program for the drug, an opportunity that is not widely available. The drug was initially developed for something completely different — treatment of melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer in adults–but has been adapted through its FDA orphan drug designation for pediatric clinical trials in NF1. In the time since Maddox started taking it, it was approved for use in NF1 patients by the FDA.

The trial drug did its job — in late 2019, Maddox’s tumor had shrunk enough that chief neurosurgeon Robert Keating, M.D., and plastic surgeon Michael Boyajian, M.D., were able to successfully remove it. Follow-up procedures led by that team have also worked to repair the tissue that was impacted by the optic neurofibroma.

In addition to treatment of his neurofibromas, Maddox and his mom are able to see every service they need during one stay in D.C. The Neurofibromatosis Institute works closely across specialties, so his corrective surgery for his leg from Children’s chief of orthopaedics, Matthew Oetgen, M.D., MBA, in September 2019. He was assessed and prescribed physical therapy early in the process and even before surgery, so now he’s stronger than ever and walking. Learning difficulties, including autism and ADHD are common in NF1 patients, and so the NF Institute’s neuropsychology team has evaluated him and worked with the family to find resources and strategies near home that will support him. It should be noted, those learning difficulties only became apparent after Maddox taught himself English from scratch in only two years’ time with the help of his school’s ESOL program.

This kind of full spectrum care, from clinical assessment to surgical treatment and psychological supports, is crucial to the lives of patients with neurofibromatosis type 1 and is only available at a pediatric specialty care institution like Children’s National. The hospital has gathered some of the preeminent researchers, surgeons, and physicians within the NF Institute to make sure that the care families will travel hundreds of miles to receive is the best possible, using the latest evidence-based treatments for every challenge they face.

Though his care and follow-ups will continue at Children’s National Hospital and his condition may pose  new challenges in the future, for now, Maddox is able to focus on exploring new things and doing what he loves — playing outdoors with his family, learning to cook and building with Legos.

Associations Between Resting State Functional Connectivity and Behavior in the Fetal Brain

Maternal anxiety affects the fetal brain

Associations Between Resting State Functional Connectivity and Behavior in the Fetal Brain

Anxiety in gestating mothers appears to affect the course of brain development in their fetuses, changing neural connectivity in the womb, a new study suggests.

Anxiety in gestating mothers appears to affect the course of brain development in their fetuses, changing neural connectivity in the womb, a new study by Children’s National Hospital researchers suggests. The findings, published Dec. 7, 2020, in JAMA Network Open, could help explain longstanding links between maternal anxiety and neurodevelopmental disorders in their children and suggests an urgent need for interventions to diagnose and decrease maternal stress.

Researchers have shown that stress, anxiety or depression in pregnant mothers is associated not only with poor obstetric outcomes but also social, emotional and behavioral problems in their children. Although the care environment after birth complicates the search for causes, postnatal imaging showing significant differences in brain anatomy has suggested that these problems may originate during gestation. However, direct evidence for this phenomenon has been lacking, says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National.

To help determine where these neurological changes might get their start, Dr. Limperopoulos, along with staff scientist Josepheen De Asis-Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., and their Children’s National colleagues used a technique called resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) to probe developing neural circuitry in fetuses at different stages of development in the late second and third trimester.

The researchers recruited 50 healthy pregnant volunteers from low-risk prenatal clinics in the Washington, D.C. area who were serving as healthy “control” volunteers in a larger study on fetal brain development in complex congenital heart disease. These study participants, spanning between 24 and 39 weeks in their pregnancies, each filled out widely used and validated questionnaires to screen for stress, anxiety and depression. Then, each underwent brain scans of their fetuses that showed connections between discrete areas that form circuits.

After analyzing rs-fMRI results for their fetuses, the researchers found that those with higher scores for either form of anxiety were more likely to carry fetuses with stronger connections between the brainstem and sensorimotor areas, areas important for arousal and sensorimotor skills, than with lower anxiety scores. At the same time, fetuses of pregnant women with higher anxiety were more likely to have weaker connections between the parieto-frontal and occipital association cortices, areas involved in executive and higher cognitive functions.

“These findings are pretty much in keeping with previous studies that show disturbances in connections reported in the years and decades after birth of children born to women with anxiety,” says Dr. De Asis-Cruz. “That suggests a form of altered fetal programming, where brain networks are changed by this elevated anxiety even before babies are born.”

Whether these effects during gestation themselves linger or are influenced by postnatal care is still unclear, adds Dr. Limperopoulos. Further studies will be necessary to follow children with these fetal differences in neural connectivity to determine whether these variations in neural circuitry development can predict future problems. In addition, it’s unknown whether easing maternal stress and anxiety can avoid or reverse these brain differences. Dr. Limperopoulos and her colleagues are currently studying whether interventions that reduce stress could alter the trajectory of fetal neural development.

In the meantime, she says, these findings emphasize the importance of making sure pregnant women have support for mental health issues, which helps ensure current and future health for both mothers and babies.

“Mental health problems remain taboo, especially in the peripartum period where the expectation is that this is a wonderful time in a woman’s life. Many pregnant mothers aren’t getting the support they need,” Dr. Limperopoulos says. “Changes at the systems level will be necessary to chip away at this critical public health problem and make sure that both mothers and babies thrive in the short and long term.”

Other Children’s National researchers who contributed to this study include Dhineshvikram Krishnamurthy, M.S., software engineer; Li Zhao, Ph.D., research faculty; Kushal Kapse, M.S., staff engineer; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., neuroradiologist; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Jessica Quistorff, M.P.H., clinical research program lead; and Catherine Lopez, M.S., clinical research program coordinator.

This study was funded by R01 HL116585-01 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and U54HD090257 from the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.

Roger Packer

Roger Packer, M.D., receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Roger Packer

“I am very honored and humbled to receive this recognition from the International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology,” says Roger Packer, M.D. “I am proud of the contributions my team and I have made in this field and we look forward to continue to lead research focused on the advancement of the crucial areas neuro-oncology.”

Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neurosciences and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Hospital, will receive the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology. Dr. Packer was selected as a recipient for the prestigious award for his substantial contributions to pediatric oncology and scientific achievements.

“I am very honored and humbled to receive this recognition from the International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology,” says Dr. Packer. “I am proud of the contributions my team and I have made in this field and we look forward to continue to lead research focused on the advancement of the crucial areas neuro-oncology.”

Dr. Packer is also a Gilbert Distinguished Professor of Neurofibromatosis and is Director of both the Gilbert Neurofibromatosis Institute and the Brain Tumor Institute of Children’s National Hospital. Most of the current studies Dr. Packer coordinates are studies evaluating innovative agents aimed at the molecular underpinnings of neurologic disease. He has published over 400 original articles and 350 reviews and chapters.

The award will be presented at ISPNO 2020, the 19th International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-Oncology, December 13-16, 2020, in Karuizawa, Japan.

Children’s National Hospital is incredibly proud of the work Dr. Packer has done in the neuro-oncology community.

graphic abstract for brain tumor paper

First large-scale proteogenomic analysis offers insights into pediatric brain tumor biology

graphic abstract for brain tumor paper

In the first large-scale, multicenter study of its kind, researchers conducted comprehensive analysis yielding a more complete understanding of pediatric brain tumors (PBT), which are the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in children. Researchers from the Clinical Proteomic Tumor Analysis Consortium (CPTAC) and Children’s Brian Tumor Network (CBTN) generated and analyzed proteomic data, which identifies common biological characteristics among different tumor types. The consortia consist of collaborators from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, National Cancer Institute, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Children’s National Hospital and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The study, published in Cell on November 25, 2020, provides a clearer understanding of the molecular basis of pediatric brain tumors and proposes new therapeutic avenues.

The molecular characterization of brain tumors has largely hinged upon the presence of unique alterations in the tumor genome ignoring the many layers of regulation that exist between DNA and the functional biology of the tumor cell that is actuated by proteins. The integration of proteomic data identifies common biological themes that span histologic boundaries, suggesting that treatments used for one histologic type may be applied effectively to other tumors sharing similar proteomic features.

Brian Rood, M.D., medical director of the Brain Tumor Institute and associate professor of pediatrics in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Hospital, participated in this study and explains the importance of what the team discovered.

Q: Why was it important that researchers came together to do this work?

A: Comprehensive characterization of the fundamental biology of pediatric brain tumors, including the proteogenomic analysis done in this study, is essential to better understand and treat pediatric brain tumors.

Our study is based on the recognition that proteomics and phosphoproteomics needs to be integrated with other omics data to gain an improved systems biology view of the molecular features of brain tumors. In addition, characterizing biological themes that cross histologic boundaries and cells of origin can suggest extending treatments shown to be effective in one type of tumor to other histologically disparate tumors sharing the same proteomic features.

Proteomic data further reveal the functional impacts of somatic mutations and copy number variations (CNVs) not evident in transcriptomic data alone. Further, kinase-substrate network analyses identify activated biological mechanisms of tumor biology.

This work was only possible because of a unique collaboration between the CPTAC program of the NCI and the CBTN, of which Children’s National is a member.

Q: How will this work advance understanding and treatment of pediatric brain tumors?

A: Pediatric brain tumors have not benefitted from molecularly targeted drugs as much as other tumor types largely because they harbor relatively few gene mutations. Therefore, identifying key pathways to target in these patients’ tumors has been a challenge. The integration of proteomic and phosphoproteomic data with genomic data allows for the construction of a more comprehensive model of brain tumor biology and nominates specific key pathways to be targeted.

Q: What did you find that excites you?

A: Proteomic data revealed a number of findings that were not present in the genomic data. We found evidence to support a molecularly targeted approach to treating craniopharyngioma, a tumor that has previously been unresponsive to chemotherapy. We also found a prognostic marker for high grade gliomas that do not have a mutation in the H3 histone. We were able to identify specific kinases that may dictate the aggressive nature of certain ependymoma tumors. Importantly, we demonstrated the potential of proteomic studies to uncover unique tumor biology, paving the way for more extensive investigations using this approach.

You can find the full study published in Cell. Learn more about the Brain Tumor Institute at Children’s National.


Dr. Rood recently joined a live panel discussion with researchers from the Children’s Brain Tumor Network and the Clinical Proteomic Tumor Analysis Consortium to explore the impact of their landmark study.

EEG with electrical activity of abnormal brain

Speckle tracking echo reveals possible biomarker for SUDEP risk

EEG with electrical activity of abnormal brain

A study published in the journal Epilepsia used speckle tracking echocardiography to detect subtle changes in heart function found in pediatric patients with refractory epilepsy when compared to controls. Children with refractory epilepsy had impaired systolic ventricular strain compared to controls, not correlated to epilepsy history. These differences in ventricular function may be a biomarker that can indicate someone with epilepsy is at higher risk for Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP).

Speckle tracking echocardiography is a non-invasive technique where software automatically identifies and tracks individual “speckles” of the myocardial wall on a routine echocardiogram in order to directly quantify the extent of contraction.

The study’s first authors, John Schreiber, M.D., medical director of Electroencephalography (EEG) and director of the Epilepsy Genetics program, and Lowell Frank, M.D., advanced imaging cardiologist and director of the Cardiology Fellowship Training program, both at Children’s National Hospital, answered some questions about the study findings.

Why is this important work?

Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is a rare but devastating consequence of epilepsy. Some of the proposed mechanisms of SUDEP implicate brain stem, cardiac and respiratory pathways.

This study identified alterations in ventricular function that may serve as one potential biomarker for SUDEP risk that can be evaluated non-invasively and regularly.

How will this work benefit patients?

Identification of children or adults with markedly impaired ventricular strain or diastolic function may provide the opportunity to implement a targeted treatment or monitoring strategy to prevent SUDEP.

What did you find that excites you? What are you hoping to discover?

These differences in cardiac strain were true for all patients with refractory epilepsy as a whole, not one particular group. This suggests that refractory convulsive epilepsy itself, rather than other patient-specific factors, produces these changes. Thanks in part to a grant from the Dravet Syndrome Foundation, the team is currently examining a cohort of patients with epilepsy due to pathogenic variants in sodium channel genes, SCN1A and SCN8A, to determine if these patients have greater degrees of impaired cardiac strain. SCN1A and SCN8A are also expressed in the heart, and patients have a considerably higher risk of SUDEP. It will be particularly exciting to examine for differences in specific genetic epilepsies.

How is this work unique?

Strain has been evaluated in many disease states in adult and pediatric populations and may be more sensitive to early myocardial damage than traditional measures of systolic and diastolic function. Children’s National Hospital has been an innovator in using speckle tracking echocardiography and similar techniques to evaluate subtle changes in heart function. This study is a great example of collaboration between The Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program and the Children’s National Heart Institute that is driving innovative research at Children’s National Hospital.

illustration of the brain

New research provides glimpse into landscape of the developing brain

illustration of the brain

Stem and progenitor cells exhibit diversity in early brain development that likely contributes to later neural complexity in the adult cerebral cortex, this according to a new study in Science Advances. This research expands on existing ideas about brain development, and could significantly impact the clinical care of neurodevelopmental diseases in the future.

Stem and progenitor cells exhibit diversity in early brain development that likely contributes to later neural complexity in the adult cerebral cortex, this according to a study published Nov. 6, 2020, in Science Advances. Researchers from the Center for Neuroscience Research (CNR) at Children’s National Hospital say this research expands on existing ideas about brain development, and could significantly impact the clinical care of neurodevelopmental diseases in the future. The study was done in collaboration with a research team at Yale University led by Nenad Sestan, M.D, Ph.D.

“Our study provides a new glimpse into the landscape of the developing brain. What we are seeing are new complex families of cells very early in development,” says Tarik Haydar, Ph.D., director of CNR at Children’s National, who led this study. “Understanding the role of these cells in forming the cerebral cortex is now possible in a way that wasn’t possible before.”

The cerebral cortex emerges early in development and is the seat of higher-order cognition, social behavior and motor control. While the rich neural diversity of the cerebral cortex and the brain in general is well-documented, how this variation arises is relatively poorly understood.

“We’ve shown in our previous work that neurons generated from different classes of cortical stem and progenitor cells have different functional properties,” says William Tyler, Ph.D., CNR research faculty member and co-first author of the study. “Part of the reason for doing this study was to go back and try to classify all the different progenitors that exist so that eventually we can figure out how each contributes to the diversity of neurons in the adult brain.”

Using a preclinical model, the researchers were able to identify numerous groups of cortical stem and precursor cells with distinct gene expression profiles. The team also found that these cells showed early signs of lineage diversification likely driven by transcriptional priming, a process by which a mother cell produces RNA for the sole purpose of passing it on to its daughter cells for later protein production.

Tarik Haydar

“Our study provides a new glimpse into the landscape of the developing brain. What we are seeing are new complex families of cells very early in development,” says Tarik Haydar, Ph.D., director of CNR at Children’s National, who led this study. “Understanding the role of these cells in forming the cerebral cortex is now possible in a way that wasn’t possible before.”

Using novel trajectory reconstruction methods, the team observed distinct developmental streams linking precursor cell types to particular excitatory neurons. After comparing the dataset of the preclinical model to a human cell database, notable similarities were found, such as the surprising cross-species presence of basal radial glial cells (bRGCs), an important type of progenitor cell previously thought to be found mainly in the primate brain.

“At a very high level, the study is important because we are directly testing a fundamental theory of brain development,” says Zhen Li, Ph.D., CNR research postdoctoral fellow and co-first author of the study. The results add support to the protomap theory, which posits that early stem and progenitor diversity paves the way for later neuronal diversity and cortical complexity. Furthermore, the results also hold exciting translational potential.

“There is evidence showing that neurodevelopmental diseases affect different populations of the neural stem cells differently,” says Dr. Li. “If we can have a better understanding of the complexity of these neural stem cells there is huge implication of disease prevention and treatment in the future.”

“If we can understand how this early landscape is affected in disorders, we can predict the resulting changes to the cortical architecture and then very narrowly define ways that groups of cells behave in these disorders,” adds Dr. Haydar. “If we can understand how the cortex normally achieves its complex architecture, then we have key entry points into improving the clinical course of a given disorder and improving quality of life.”

Future topics the researchers hope to study include the effects of developmental changes on brain function, the origin and operational importance of bRGCs, and the activity, connections and cognitive features enabled by different families of neurons.

Research & Innovation Campus

Boeing gives $5 million to support Research & Innovation Campus

Research & Innovation Campus

Children’s National Hospital announced a $5 million gift from The Boeing Company that will help drive lifesaving pediatric discoveries at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.

Children’s National Hospital announced a $5 million gift from The Boeing Company that will help drive lifesaving pediatric discoveries at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. The campus, now under construction, is being developed on nearly 12 acres of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Children’s National will name the main auditorium in recognition of Boeing’s generosity.

“We are deeply grateful to Boeing for their support and commitment to improving the health and well-being of children in our community and around the globe,” said Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National “The Boeing Auditorium will help the Children’s National Research & Innovation campus become the destination for discussion about how to best address the next big healthcare challenges facing children and families.”

The one-of-a-kind pediatric hub will bring together public and private partners for unprecedented collaborations. It will accelerate the translation of breakthroughs into new treatments and technologies to benefit kids everywhere.

“Children’s National Hospital’s enduring mission of positively impacting the lives of our youngest community members is especially important today,” said Boeing President and CEO David Calhoun. “We’re honored to join other national and community partners to advance this work through the establishment of their Research & Innovation Campus.”

Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus partners currently include Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS, Virginia Tech, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Food & Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), Cerner, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, National Organization of Rare Diseases (NORD) and local government.

The 3,200 square-foot Boeing Auditorium will be the focal point of the state-of-the-art conference center on campus. Nationally renowned experts will convene with scientists, medical leaders and diplomats from around the world to foster collaborations that spur progress and disseminate findings.

Boeing’s $5 million commitment deepens its longstanding partnership with Children’s National. The company has donated nearly $2 million to support pediatric care and research at Children’s National through Chance for Life and the hospital’s annual Children’s Ball. During the coronavirus pandemic, Boeing fabricated and donated 2,000 face shields to help keep patients and frontline care providers at Children’s National safe.

MRI of the patient's head close-up

Madison Berl, Ph.D., receives 2020 PERF award for Infrastructure/Registry Research

MRI of the patient's head close-up

The Pediatric Epilepsy Research Foundation Grant (PERF) has awarded Madison Berl, Ph.D., neuropsychologist at Children’s National Hospital, the 2020 PERF award for Infrastructure/Registry Research. The funds will support her work on researching neuropsychological outcomes of children being considered for pediatric epilepsy surgery.

This grant, which provides $200,000 of research funding, will allow Dr. Berl to systematically collect data outcomes and create robust prediction models that are critical to achieving precision medicine that allows for selecting the most effective surgical treatment for an individual child.

“While seizures are a critical outcome, there is increasing recognition that outcomes beyond seizure control is critical to children and their families when evaluating and treating the impact of epilepsy and its treatments,” said Dr. Berl.

Guidelines and consensus statements related to pediatric epilepsy surgery are uniformly lacking high quality published outcome data to support clinical decisions that impact likelihood of seizure freedom and optimizing outcomes beyond seizures (e.g., neuropsychological functioning, quality of life, improved sleep). Despite recognition of the need for standardized collection of data on a multi-institutional basis, the efforts that exist are limited in scope.

Moreover, as new techniques – such as laser ablation and brain stimulation – are approved for pediatric patients, there is little information available to determine which children will benefit from which intervention.

“This project fundamentally is a multi-site registry for epilepsy surgery outcomes,” Dr. Berl added.

“However, this type of infrastructure also fosters growth and active collaboration within a network of pediatric epilepsy clinicians. I am excited because if successful, this will be the start of long-term collaborative effort.”

Artificial Intelligence concept image

Thrombectomy can be efficient and safe in childhood stroke, new study finds

Artificial Intelligence concept image

A recent study adds to the growing evidence that mechanical thrombectomy can be effective and safe not only in adults, but also in childhood stroke.

Previous randomized trials proved the effectiveness of thrombectomy for large intracranial vessel occlusions in adults only. However, a recent retrospective study led by Monica S. Pearl, M.D., Neurointerventional Radiology Program director at Children’s National Hospital, finds that thrombectomy can be safely performed in carefully selected cases of childhood stroke. The study further shows that treated children have good neurological outcomes.

In the findings, Dr. Pearl and other leading experts discussed specific circumstances and important considerations to take into account when managing a child with acute ischemic stroke due to a large vessel occlusion.

“We are raising the bar for the expected level of care for children with acute ischemic stroke,” said Dr. Pearl. “Care should be multidisciplinary and involve stroke neurology, neuroradiology, neurointerventional radiology, neurosurgery, cardiology, hematology and ICU teams.”

Prior to the study, clear guidelines for patient selection, thrombectomy technique and periprocedural care did not exist for the pediatric population despite the proven success of mechanical thrombectomy in adults.

Through a case-based approach encompassing a broad range of ages and clinical presentations, Dr. Pearl and other leading experts presented select cases of acute ischemic stroke in children and discussed the nuances, risks, benefits and management plan for each child.

Many of the clinical scenarios highlighted unanswered questions in the management and treatment of children with acute ischemic stroke due to large vessel occlusion. The study adds to the growing evidence that mechanical thrombectomy can be effective and safe not only in adults, but also in childhood stroke.

“It’s exciting to be shaping management for children with acute ischemic stroke,” said Dr. Pearl. “We are serving as the model for individualized, patient-centered care with multidisciplinary specialists and institutional collaboration caring for children with acute ischemic stroke.”

However, Dr. Pearl and experts encourage caution because etiology in childhood stroke differs substantially from that in acute ischemic stroke in adults, with potentially major impact on procedure success and safety.

The mission of the Neurointerventional Radiology Program, a new effort at Children’s National, is to provide exceptional family-centered care and cutting-edge diagnostic and endovascular treatment options for children with neurovascular disorders. Dr. Pearl serves as the program’s full time, dedicated neurointerventional radiologist, a specialized expertise found only in a handful of other pediatric hospitals in the country.

You can find the full study published in JAHA. Learn more about the Children’s National Research Institute Center for Neuroscience Research.