Neurology and Neurosurgery

neuron

Children’s National to host 29th Annual Pediatric Neurology Update

neuron

The Children’s National Health System Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine is proud to host the 29th Annual Pediatric Neurology Update course.

This year’s course will focus on three critical areas in pediatric neuroscience and neurodevelopment: epilepsy with focuses on innovations in epilepsy surgery and new therapeutics; tuberous sclerosis including neurosurgical advances and transition to adulthood; and autism spectrum disorder with emphasis on new understandings and pre-requisites for an “Autism Friendly Hospital.”

We invite you to join us for presentations from renowned experts in the field in this full-day, CME accredited event on April 11, 2019 at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Rockville, MD.

For more information and to register, visit ChildrensNational.org/NeurologyUpdate.

Eugene Hwang

Unexpected heterogeneity in CNS-PNET patients treated as a single entity

Eugene Hwang

“We found that some patients diagnosed with standard tools underwent much more treatment than necessary or intended,” said Eugene Hwang, M.D.

Eugene I. Hwang, M.D., a neuro-oncologist in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, and other researchers at Children’s National Health System, Seattle Children’s Hospital and Research Institute, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Hopp-Children’s Cancer Center at the NCT Heidelberg recently published the results of a clinical trial focusing on children with histologically diagnosed supratentorial primitive neuroectodermal tumors (CNS-PNET) and pineblastomas (PBLs).

The clinical trial, published online October 17, 2018 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, included children and adolescents aged 3-22 with these brain cancers who were randomly assigned to receive carboplatin during radiation and/or isotretinoin after the standard intensive therapy (high-dose craniospinal radiation and months of inpatient chemotherapy).  Importantly, because each patient was treated prospectively according to the clinical trial design, the conclusions related to tumor biology were felt to be less affected by varied treatment plans.

“This trial really highlighted the importance of new molecular testing methods in accurately diagnosing some of the brain cancers included in the trial. We found that some patients diagnosed with standard tools underwent much more treatment than necessary or intended.” says Dr. Hwang. “Kids who aren’t receiving the right form of cancer treatment may not get better despite months and months of intensive treatment.”

During this clinical trial, 85 participants with institutionally-diagnosed CNS-PNETs/PBLs were enrolled. Out of the 60 patients with sufficient tissue, 31 were non-pineal in location, 22 of which represented tumors that did not fit in the diagnoses intended for trial inclusion.

The researchers discovered that patient outcomes across each molecularly-diagnosed tumor type were strikingly different. Patients with molecularly-confirmed supratentorial embryonal tumors/PBLs exhibited a five-year event free survival (EFS) and an overall survival rate of 62 percent and 78.5 percent, respectively. However, patients with molecularly-classified high-grade gliomas (HGGs) had a five-year EFS of 5.6 percent and OS of 12 percent, showing no benefit even with the chemotherapy and craniospinal radiation.

Researchers determined that for patients with CNS-PNETs/PBLs, prognosis is considerably better than previously assumed when molecularly-confirmed HGG are removed. Dr. Hwang and co-authors concluded that molecular diagnosis can greatly aid standard pathological diagnostic tools, preventing unnecessary intensive therapy for some patients while enabling more rational treatment for others.

“The findings from our clinical trial have highlighted the immense challenges of histology-based diagnosis for some types of pediatric brain tumors, and the enormous importance this has for children with brain cancer,” Dr. Hwang says. “We hope that ultimately our study will pave the way for molecular profiling to become a standard component of initial diagnosis.”

Javad Nazarian

Meeting of the minds: Children’s National hosts first DIPG Round Table Discussion

Javad Nazarian at DIPG Round Table Discussion

Spearheaded by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., MSC, Scientific Director of the Children’s National Brain Tumor Institute, the focused DIPG Round Table Discussion brought investigators, neurosurgeons and clinicians from North America, Europe and Australia to Children’s National in Washington, D.C.

Over 40 experts involved in the study and treatment of diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIPG) convened at the inaugural DIPG Round Table Discussion at Children’s National Health System Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

Spearheaded by Javad Nazarian, Ph.D., MSC, Scientific Director of the Children’s National Brain Tumor Institute, the focused DIPG Round Table Discussion brought investigators, neurosurgeons and clinicians from North America, Europe and Australia to Children’s National in Washington, D.C., to engage in dialogue and learn about the changing landscape of DIPG tumor biology and therapeutics. Attendees discussed the recent discoveries in DIPG research, precision medicine, preclinical modeling, immunotherapy, data sharing and the design of next generation clinical trials.

Families affected by DIPG also had an opportunity to participate in day 2 of the event. Many voiced the necessity of data sharing to ensure progress in the field. Dr. Nazarian seconded that point of view: “It is critical to get raw data and have it harmonized and integrated so that the end users (researchers) can utilize and do cross-data analysis…We need to break down the silos.” The highlight of the data sharing session was the Open DIPG Initiative that is spearheaded by Dr. Nazarian and the Children’s Brian Tumor Tissue Consortium (CBTTC).

Nazarian Lab at DIPG Roundtable Meeting

Eshini Panditharatna, Ph.D., Madhuri Kambhampati, Sridevi Yadavilli, M.D., Ph.D., and Erin Bonner of Children’s National at the DIPG Round Table.

As recent technological and molecular advances in DIPG biology have pushed the field forward, focus groups have become essential to share data, ideas and resources with the overarching goal of expediting effective treatments for children diagnosed with DIPG. An extremely aggressive form of pediatric brain cancer, DIPG accounts for roughly 10 to 15 percent of all brain tumors in children. Between 300 and 400 children in the United States are diagnosed with DIPG each year, but the 5-year survival for the brain tumor is less than 5 percent, a strikingly low number in comparison with other types of childhood cancer. DIPG research and clinical initiatives have changed in the past years mainly due to the generous support of families for basic research. The DIPG Open Table meeting was designed to coalesce a team of experts to expedite the first crack at curing this devastating childhood cancer.

little girl with concussion at doctors

Predicting kids’ outcomes after concussion

little girl with concussion at doctors

A concussion symptom measurement tool, developed by investigators at Children’s National Health System, allows other researchers to collect valuable evidence about the natural progression of symptoms and recovery for children. The tool, Post-Concussion Symptom Inventory (PCSI), was a key tool in the recent large-scale multi-center prospective study of recovery trajectory for children, which was published online in JAMA Pediatrics Sept. 4, 2018.

That study included 2,716 children between the ages of 5 and 17, and identified major trends in symptom improvement post concussion, such as:

  • Children younger than 12 experience primary symptom improvement in the first two weeks
  • Pre-adolescents, male adolescents and teens experience primary symptom improvement in the first four weeks and
  • Female adolescents take longer to perceive primary symptom improvements than children, pre-adolescents and male counterparts.

“We’ve known for many years that different people experience concussion recovery very differently. This study is the first to provide significant evidence of what we should expect to see in terms of symptom improvement for children and teens,” says Gerard Gioia, Ph.D., chief of the Division of Neuropsychology at Children’s National and director of its Safe Concussion Outcome Recovery and Education Program, who co-authored the study and whose team developed the PCSI measurement tool. “Ultimately, these findings are an important step in predicting outcomes after a concussion and developing treatment plans that get kids back to school and sports safely, when they are ready.”

Dr. Gioia and his team also recently received a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant to develop a new smartphone application, Online Treatment Recovery Assistant for Concussion in Kids (OnTRACK), that applies several concussion tools developed at Children’s National, including the same one applied in the JAMA Pediatrics study, to track individual symptoms over time.

The OnTRACK app will report concussion symptoms on a regular basis (daily or weekly) and map their trajectory, so doctors can see when recovery is proceeding along the expected pathway. Alternatively, clinicians will receive an alert when a child’s recovery misses targets and warrants further investigation and possible referral to a specialist.

Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., honored with Senator Jacob Javits Award in the Neurosciences

Vittorio Gallo

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s Chief Research Officer, has been awarded a prestigious Senator Jacob Javits Award in the Neurosciences, which extends federal funding for Gallo’s lab for at least seven years. The long-term support is offered to “investigators with a history of exceptional talent, imagination and preeminent scientific achievement.”

Only National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) staff members or NINDS Council members may nominate researchers for the coveted awards, named in honor of Sen. Jacob Javits, (R-New York). Before his death, Sen. Javits advocated for additional research in a wide variety of disorders of the brain and nervous system.

“It’s a great recognition from the neuroscience community and from NINDS for contributions to neuroscience and outstanding service to the neuroscience community,” Gallo says. “It’s also very exciting because it gives additional national visibility to our Center for Neuroscience Research and to Children’s National Health System, as one of the nation’s leading research institutions.”

Through the award, Gallo’s successful five-year Research Project Grant from the National Institutes of Health will be converted to a seven-year award. In the fourth year of federal funding, he can apply for a budgetary increase.

“Thanks to this funding, I predict we will be able to identify cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie developmental delays in children who experienced neonatal brain injury,” Gallo says.

“We are really starting to understand this very complex problem: How does neonatal brain injury lead to developmental delays later in a child’s life? What are the mechanisms? We know there are cognitive and behavioral abnormalities that are common to children who have experienced hypoxia as newborns. But we don’t really know how these behavioral abnormalities arise at the physiological, cellular and molecular levels.”

Gallo says identifying these cellular targets will make it possible to tailor interventions that target distinct cell types at different times in the child’s life.

Recent work by Gallo’s lab includes a research paper published online Aug. 13, 2018, by Nature Communications that found chronic sublethal hypoxia is associated with locomotor miscoordination and long-term cerebellar learning deficits in a clinically relevant model of neonatal brain injury.

John Strang

Neuro- and gender-diverse teens find their voices

John Strang

“These autistic young people spoke a lot about their gender and gender needs and their descriptions of gender dysphoria were deeply emotional. One of the common characteristics of autism is reduced communication of feelings, yet many of these young people were very clear about the anguish that gender dysphoria caused for them and also their need for gender-related interventions,” says John Strang, Psy.D., director of the Gender and Autism Program at Children’s National Health System and study lead.

“They Thought It Was An Obsession” is the title of a qualitative study from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, that provides an unprecedented glimpse into the development, thoughts, perceptions, feelings and needs of this poorly understood but significant subgroup of transgender and gender minority teens.

The title is an accurate reflection of the study’s analysis, which finds that the accounts of gender dysphoria in autistic transgender youth parallel those of transgender young people without autism. These findings stand in contrast to previous studies asserting the idea that gender dysphoria in autistic youth is driven primarily by superficial autism-related interests.

“These autistic young people spoke a lot about their gender and gender needs and their descriptions of gender dysphoria were deeply emotional. One of the common characteristics of autism is reduced communication of feelings, yet many of these young people were very clear about the anguish that gender dysphoria caused for them and also their need for gender-related interventions,” says John Strang, Psy.D., director of the Gender and Autism Program at Children’s National Health System and study lead.

Additionally, the autistic characteristics of these young people – which may reduce their concern for social conventions – often lead them to express their gender in individual and sometimes surprising ways.

“A transgender autistic young woman may wear a full beard and understand her gender identity as something completely separate from her appearance,” says Dr. Strang. “The cooccurrence of gender identity-diversity and autism may reveal something of the deeper nature of gender when the overlay of social gender expectations is reduced.”

The study followed 22 autistic transgender teens over nearly two years. It is the first study of its kind to track and follow up with this many youth with the cooccurrence over a significant period of time. The authors believe the report can serve as a guide for how clinicians, peers and families can better support and understand teens who are both neurodiverse and gender diverse.

The study’s methodology is also novel, as it features the inclusion of a slate of autistic gender-diverse coanalysts and coauthors who partnered in the interpretation of the youth provided data.

The coauthor group also included a retransitioned (previously transgender) self-advocate coanalyst to help provide context regarding the experiences and trajectories of the few study participants who moved away from transgender identity during the study’s duration.

Reid Caplan of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an autistic transgender self-advocate and one of the study’s coauthors noted, “Too often in medical literature, the overlap between autistic and transgender identities is described in a way that pathologizes both of these communities. As an autistic transgender young adult, I feel privileged to be a coauthor of research that puts the voices of autistic and gender-diverse youth at the forefront. By giving these youth control over their own narratives, this study exemplifies a key value of the self-advocate community: Nothing about us, without us!”

Chima Oluigbo examines a patient

Eradicating epilepsy with Visualase

Chima Oluigbo examines a patient

Chima Oluigbo, M.D., and his team are using Visualase to identify and eliminate seizure foci and provide patients with a minimally invasive procedure for treating epilepsy.

About one in 26 people will be diagnosed with epilepsy in their lifetime. That adds up to about 3.4 million people in the U.S., or about 1 percent of the population nationwide. This condition can have huge consequences on quality of life, affecting whether children will learn well in school, eventually drive a car, hold down a job or even survive into adulthood.

For most of those that develop epilepsy, medications can keep seizures in check. However, for about a third of patients, this strategy doesn’t work, says Chima Oluigbo, M.D., an attending neurosurgeon at Children’s National Health System. That’s when he and his team offer a surgical fix.

Epilepsy surgery has come a long way, Dr. Oluigbo explains. When he first began practicing in the early 2000s, most surgeries were open, he says – they involved making a long incision in the scalp that can span half a foot or more. After drilling out a window of skull that can be as long as five inches, surgeons had to dig through healthy brain to find the abnormal tissue and remove it.

Each part of this “maximally invasive” procedure can be traumatic on a patient, Dr. Oluigbo says. That leads to significant pain after the procedure, extended hospital stays of at least a week followed by a long recovery. There are also significant risks for neurological complications including stroke, weakness, paralysis, speech problems and more.

However, open surgery isn’t the only option for epilepsy surgery anymore. Several new minimally invasive alternatives are now available to patients and the most promising, Dr. Oluigbo says, is called Visualase. He and his team are the only surgeons in the region who perform this procedure.

In Visualase surgeries, Dr. Oluigbo and his colleagues start by making a tiny incision, about 5 millimeters, on the scalp. Through this opening, they bore an even tinier hole into the skull and thread a needle inside that’s about 1.6 millimeters wide. “The brain barely notices that it’s there,” he says.

The tip of this wire holds a laser. Once this tip is placed directly at the seizure foci – the cluster of nerve cells responsible for generating a seizure – the patient is placed in an intraoperative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device. There, after checking the tip’s precise placement, the surgeons turn the laser on. Heat from the laser eradicates the foci, which the surgeons can see in real time using MRI thermography technology. The margins of the destroyed tissue are well-defined, largely sparing healthy tissue.

After the wire is removed, the incision is closed with a single stitch, and patients go home the next day. The majority of patients are seizure free, with rates as high as 90 percent for some types of epilepsy, Dr. Oluigbo says. Although seizure-free rates are also high for open procedures, he adds, Visualase spares them many of open surgeries’ painful and difficult consequences.

“Having done both open surgeries and Visualase,” Dr. Oluigbo says, “I can tell you the difference is night and day.”

Although open procedures will still be necessary for some patients with particularly large foci that are close to the surface, Dr. Oluigbo says that Visualase is ideal for treating medication-resistant cases in which the foci are buried deep within the brain. A typical example is a condition called hypothalamic hamartoma, in which tumors on the hypothalamus lead to gelastic seizures, an unusual seizure type characterized by uncontrollable laughing. He also uses Visualase for another condition called tuberous sclerosis, in which waxy growths called tubers develop in the brain, and for cancerous and benign brain tumors.

It’s gratifying to be able to help these children become seizure-free for the rest of their lives, says Dr. Oluigbo – even more so with the numerous updates he receives from families telling him how much this procedure has improved their children’s lifestyle.

“Visualase has completely changed the way that we approach these patients,” Dr. Oluigbo says. “It’s extraordinary to see the effects that this one procedure can have on the quality of life for patients here at Children’s National.”

toddler on a playground

Perinatal hypoxia associated with long-term cerebellar learning deficits and Purkinje cell misfiring

toddler on a playground

The type of hypoxia that occurs with preterm birth is associated with locomotor miscoordination and long-term cerebellar learning deficits but can be partially alleviated with an off-the-shelf medicine, according to a study using a preclinical model.

Oxygen deprivation associated with preterm birth leaves telltale signs on the brains of newborns in the form of alterations to cerebellar white matter at the cellular and the physiological levels. Now, an experimental model of this chronic hypoxia reveals that those cellular alterations have behavioral consequences.

Chronic sublethal hypoxia is associated with locomotor miscoordination and long-term cerebellar learning deficits in a clinically relevant model of neonatal brain injury, according to a study led by Children’s National Health System researchers published online Aug. 13, 2018, by Nature Communications. Using high-tech optical and physiological methods that allow researchers to turn neurons on and off and an advanced behavioral tool, the research team finds that Purkinje cells fire significantly less often after injury due to perinatal hypoxia. However, an off-the-shelf medicine now used to treat epilepsy enables those specialized brain cells to regain their ability to fire, improving locomotor performance.

Step out of the car onto the pavement, hop up to the level of the curb, stride to the entrance, and climb a flight of stairs. Or, play a round of tennis. The cerebellum coordinates such locomotor performance and muscle memory, guiding people of all ages as they adapt to a changing environment.

“Most of us successfully coordinate our movements to navigate the three-dimensional spaces we encounter daily,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Children’s Chief Research Officer and the study’s senior author. “After children start walking, they also have to learn how to navigate the environment and the spaces around them.”

These essential tasks, Gallo says, are coordinated by Purkinje cells, large neurons located in the cerebellum that are elaborately branched like interlocking tree limbs and represent the only source of output for the entire cerebellar cortex. The rate of development of the fetal cerebellum dramatically increases at a time during pregnancy that often coincides with preterm birth, which can delay or disrupt normal brain development.

“It’s almost like a short circuit. Purkinje cells play a very crucial role, and when the frequency of their firing is diminished by injury the whole output of this brain region is impaired,” Gallo says. “For a family of a child who has this type of impaired neural development, if we understand the nature of this disrupted circuitry and can better quantify it, in terms of locomotor performance, then we can develop new therapeutic approaches.”

Study authors Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D. and Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

The research team leveraged a fully automated, computerized apparatus that looks like a ladder placed on a flat surface, encased in glass, with a darkened box at either end. Both the hypoxic and control groups had training sessions during which they learned how to traverse the horizontal ladder, coaxed out of the darkened room by a gentle puff of air and a light cue. Challenge sessions tested their adaptive cerebellar locomotor learning skills. The pads they strode across were pressure-sensitive and analyzed individual stepping patterns to predict how long it should take each to complete the course.

During challenge sessions, obstacles were presented in the course, announced by an audible tone. If learning was normal, then the response to the tone paired with the obstacle would be a quick adjustment of movement, without breaking stride, says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., co-lead author. Experimental models exposed to perinatal hypoxia showed significant deficits in associating that tone with the obstacle.

“With the control group, we saw fewer missteps during any given trial,” Sathyanesan says. “And, when they got really comfortable, they took longer steps. With the hypoxic group, it took them longer to learn the course. They made a significantly higher number of missteps from day one. By the end of the training period, they could walk along all of the default rungs, but it took them longer to learn how to do so.”

Purkinje cells fire two different kinds of spikes. Simple spikes are a form of constant activity as rhythmic and automatic as a heartbeat. Complex spikes, by contrast, occur less frequently. Sathyanesan and co-authors say that some of the deficits that they observed were due to a reduction in the frequency of simple spiking.

Two weeks after experiencing hypoxia, the hypoxic group’s locomotor performance remained significantly worse than the control group, and delays in learning could still be seen five weeks after hypoxia.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter, excites immature neurons before and shortly after birth but soon afterward switches to having an inhibitory effect within in the cerebellum, Sathyanesan says. The research team hypothesizes that reduced levels of excitatory GABA during early development leads to long-term motor problems. Using an off-the-shelf drug to increase GABA levels immediately after hypoxia dramatically improved locomotor performance.

“Treating experimental models with tiagabine after hypoxic injury elevates GABA levels, partially restoring Purkinje cells’ ability to fire,” Gallo says. “We now know that restoring GABA levels during this specific window of time has a beneficial effect. However, our approach was not specifically targeted to Purkinje cells. We elevated GABA everywhere in the brain. With more targeted and selective administration to Purkinje cells, we want to gauge whether tiagabine has a more powerful effect on normalizing firing frequency.”

In addition to Gallo and Sathyanesan, Children’s co-authors include Co-Lead Author, Srikanya Kundu, Ph.D., and Joseph Abbah, B.Pharm., Ph.D., both of Children’s Center for Neuroscience Research.

Research covered in this story was supported by the Intellectual and Developmental Disability Research Center under award number U54HD090257.

NeuroPace RNS x-ray

New brain “pacemaker” offers new hope for refractory epilepsy

NeuroPace RNS x-ray

Example of NeuroPace RNS System placement.

If a child’s refractory seizures – seizures that don’t respond to medication – are originating in a part of the brain that is central to function (for example, impacting memory or verbal skills) the standard next step – surgical resection – is not an option for seizure reduction or relief. In most cases, these children are followed, more medications are tried, and other strategies attempted, but few viable options exist to ease their symptoms.

It’s possible that the next generation of implantable neurostimulators, which act as a type of pacemaker for the brain, might make a difference for some children previously left with no answers. Children’s National neurosurgeon Chima Oluigbo, M.D., in collaboration with the Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program at Children’s National, is looking at how these devices might be used to reduce or eliminate refractory seizures in pediatric patients. One example of this type of device is the RNS System.

“The RNS has been FDA approved for adults since 2013,” says Dr. Oluigbo, who recently implanted a NeuroPace RNS in the first pediatric patient at Children’s National, and one of the first young patients in the country. “The safety and efficacy data in the adult population, now gathered from a cohort of more than 800 adults, is showing positive outcomes so far. That allows pediatric neurosurgeons to consider an off-label use of this device for patients under the approved usage age of 18, when no other treatments exist.”

The RNS operates differently from previous neuro pacemaker-style devices. It is a “closed-loop” system that doesn’t require external activation once a seizure has started. Instead, the precise location of seizure origination is identified via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Leads are then placed at the seizure site via surgery, and once activated, the RNS monitors and self-activates when pre-seizure electrical impulses are detected. The device responds by emitting a series of its own electrical impulses to interrupt and reset the brain’s seizure activity. The RNS system’s ability to continuously monitor the patient also allows physicians to get an inside look at the ongoing brain function of these young patients.

“Children’s National is one of the first places to apply the use of this device in children, because we are one of the few locations on the East coast with the multi-disciplinary expertise to implement it safely and effectively,” says Dr. Oluigbo. “Our clinical epilepsy team has been imaging and treating children with epilepsy for almost 30 years. With one of the oldest neurosurgical programs in country and our technological capabilities, Children’s National becomes the perfect location to explore how technology like this can improve the quality of life for our patients, many of whom have previously been told there is nothing more we can do to help.”

De-personalized data from patients who receive the NeuroPace RNS will be shared with the company in the hopes that the data will assist the FDA in assessing the appropriateness of extending the age range of approval from 18 and above to 12 and above.

“Our hope is to contribute to the body of data about this device and determine if it will improve the lives of our younger patients the way it has already been done for adults,” Dr. Oluigbo concludes. “Kids’ brains may respond differently, however, sharing our patients’ experiences and outcomes will help us identify whether or not this is a viable and promising option for more children with refractory epilepsy.”

Tory Peitz and Victoria Catalano

Making weight: Ensuring that micro preemies gain pounds and inches

Tory Peitz and Victoria Catalano

Tory Peitz, R.N., (left) and Victoria Catalano, RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, (right) Pediatric Dietitian Specialist in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children’s National Health System, measure the length of a micro preemie who weighed 1.5 pounds at birth.

A quality-improvement project to standardize feeding practices for micro preemies – preterm infants born months before their due date –  helped to boost their weight and nearly quadrupled the frequency of lactation consultations ordered in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), a multidisciplinary team from Children’s National Health System finds.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 infants in 2016 was preterm, born prior to completing 37 gestational weeks of pregnancy. Micro preemies are the tiniest infants in that group, weighing less than 1,500 grams and born well before their brain, lungs and organs like the liver are fully developed.

As staff reviewed charts for very low birth weight preterm infants admitted to Children’s NICU, they found dramatic variation in nutritional practices among clinicians and a mean decline in delta weight Z-scores, a more sensitive way to monitor infants’ weight gain along growth percentiles for their gestational age. A multidisciplinary team that included dietitians, nurses, neonatologists, a lactation consultant and a quality-improvement leader evaluated nutrition practices and determined key drivers for improving nutrition status.

“We tested a variety of strategies, including standardizing feeding practices; maximizing intended delivery of feeds; tracking adequacy of calorie, protein and micronutrient intake; and maximizing use of the mother’s own breast milk,” says Michelande Ridoré, MS, a Children’s NICU quality-improvement lead who will present the group’s findings during the Virginia Neonatal Nutrition Association conference this fall. “We took nothing for granted: We reeducated everyone in the NICU about the importance of the standardized feeding protocol. We shared information about whether infants were attaining growth targets during daily rounds. And we used an infographic to help nursing moms increase the available supply of breastmilk,” Ridoré says.

On top of other challenges, very low birth weight preterm infants are born very lean, with minimal muscle. During the third trimester, pregnant women pass on a host of essential nutrients and proteins to help satisfy the needs of the fetus’ developing muscles, bones and brain. “Because preterm infants miss out on that period in utero, we add fortification to provide preemies with extra protein, phosphorus, calcium and zinc they otherwise would have received from mom in the womb,” says Victoria Catalano, RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, a pediatric clinical dietitian in Children’s NICU and study co-author. Babies’ linear growth is closely related to neurocognitive development, Catalano says. A dedicated R.N.  is assigned to length boards for Children’s highest-risk newborns to ensure consistency in measurements.

Infants who were admitted within the first seven days of life and weighed less than 1,500 grams were included in the study. At the beginning of the quality-improvement project, the infants’ mean delta Z-score for weight was -1.8. By December 2018, that had improved to -1.3. And the number of lactation consultation ordered weekly increased from 1.1 to four.

“We saw marked improvement in micro preemies’ nutritional status as we reduced the degree of variation in nutrition practices,” says Mary Revenis, M.D., NICU medical lead on nutrition and senior author for the research. “Our goal was to increase mean delta Z-scores even more. To that end, we will continue to test other key drivers for improved weight gain, including zinc supplementation, updating infants’ growth trajectories in the electronic medical record and advocating for expanded use of birth mothers’ breast milk,” Dr. Revenis says.

In addition to Ridoré, Catalano and Dr. Revenis, study co-authors include Caitlin Forsythe MS, BSN, RNC-NIC, lead author; Rebecca Vander Veer RD, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric dietitian specialist; Erin Fauer RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric dietitian specialist; Judith Campbell, RN, IBCLC, NICU lactation consultant; Eresha Bluth MHA; Anna Penn M.D., Ph.D., neonatalogist; and Lamia Soghier M.D., Med., NICU medical unit director.

Roger Packer

From discovery to ‘no excuses’ in neuro-oncology

For more than three decades, the world’s pre-eminent scientists and clinicians in pediatric neuro-oncology have convened the International Symposium on Pediatric Neuro-oncology every two years. Their goal is to advance the care and treatment of pediatric brain and central nervous system tumors by connecting across disciplines to share research findings and discuss the latest treatment approaches.

This year for the first time, representatives from parent advocacy groups and patient support foundations were also invited to attend the traditionally scientific meeting. Their inclusion allowed care providers and scientific investigators to make sure the voices of patients and families, and their needs, are heard.

Roger J. Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine at Children’s National Health System, served as international organizing committee chair this year. He was chair and organizer of the very first symposium, held in 1986, and has led additional sessions over the years.

Dr. Packer had the honor of giving the opening keynote address to more than 1,200 participants in Denver this year. He used his lecture to highlight some of the amazing knowledge leaps made in the last decade in understanding the molecular makeup and genetics behind brain and spinal cord tumors.

“We’ve made more discoveries in these areas in the last 10 years than we made in the 50 years before that. It’s been a phenomenal decade for discovery,” he notes.  “But the fact remains we have not yet been able to translate all of this knowledge into more effective therapies for most children with brain and central nervous system cord tumors.”

Dr. Packer says progress made in managing and treating childhood low grade gliomas is one example of how care should move forward for other tumor types. The unique genetic and molecular makeup of low grade gliomas, which are the single most common form of childhood low grade tumor, has allowed clinicians to begin moving away from surgeries, radiation therapy and chemotherapy toward less neurotoxic treatments targeted at the specific molecular properties of the tumor itself.

“Although the chemotherapy protocol we began for low-grade gliomas 30 years ago works well and is still the standard of care today, the new molecular approaches we and others have tested will hopefully replace it soon and result in even better outcomes,” he adds.

Medulloblastoma, the most common form of malignant brain tumor, is one area Dr. Packer notes could stand to benefit from therapies with less impact on a child’s quality of life. The current treatment protocol used for this childhood tumor also remains the same as the one that Dr. Packer helped develop more than 30 years ago.

“Our protocol is effective, and we’ve moved survival from 50 percent to 80 percent for these types of tumors using this approach, but it’s time to determine how best to move toward effective molecularly targeted therapies that would allow us to reduce the neurotoxic treatments necessary to treat these tumors.”

“We have to move from our decade of discovery to a decade of no excuses where we are able to use what we’ve learned to improve the care of all childhood brain and spinal cord tumors,” he says.

Dr. Packer says the key is to avoid getting paralyzed by the mountain of molecular data that is available and really focus on the specific information needed to make treatments more precise.

One promising new approach is the use of immunotherapy for pediatric brain and spinal cord tumors. Children’s National and colleagues from across the U.S. are at the forefront of developing these therapies to control tumor growth, and presented several related studies at ISPNO:

There were also several poster session presentations where Dr. Hwang, Lindsey Kilburn, M.D., Brian Rood, M.D., and others from the Children’s National team shared findings related to the potential and the challenges of molecular targeted therapies, especially immunotherapies. The team at Children’s also presented data related to new findings about how to reverse neurologic and neurocognitive deficits that often result from these conditions, including some that for years were thought to be irreversible, such as vision deficits.

Dr. Packer notes that many of the newest clinical trials both in the U.S. and internationally have the potential to kick start this decade of “no excuses.”

“We’ve made great progress, but we haven’t yet been able to take full advantage of the knowledge we’ve amassed. To do it, we all have to work together as a community nationally and internationally to change the paradigms of how we treat these children and make meaningful advances.”

Pregnant-Mom

Safeguarding fetal brain health in pregnancies complicated by CHD

Pregnant-Mom

During the last few weeks of pregnancy, certain regions of the fetal brain experience exponential growth but also are more vulnerable to injury during that high-growth period.

Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research postdoctoral fellow in the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System, has received a Thrasher Research Fund early career award to expand knowledge about regions of the fetal brain that are vulnerable to injury from congenital heart disease (CHD) during pregnancy.

CHD, the most common birth defect, can have lasting effects, including overall health issues; difficulty achieving milestones such as crawling, walking or running; and missed days at daycare or school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brain injury is a major complication for infants born with CHD. Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of Children’s brain imaging lab, was the first to provide in vivo evidence that fetal brain growth and metabolism in the third trimester of pregnancy is impaired within the womb.

“It remains unclear which specific regions of the fetal brain are more vulnerable to these insults in utero,” Limperopoulos says. “We first need to identify early brain abnormalities attributed to CHD and understand their impact on infants’ later behavioral and cognitive development in order to better counsel parents and effectively intervene during the prenatal period to safeguard brain health.”

During the last few weeks of pregnancy, certain regions of the fetal brain experience exponential growth but also are more vulnerable to injury during that high-growth period. The grant, $26,749 over two years, will underwrite “Brain Development in Fetuses With Congenital Heart Disease,” research that enables Wu to utilize quantitative, non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare fetal brain development in pregnancies complicated by CHD with brain development in healthy fetuses of the same gestational age.Wu will leverage quantitative, in vivo 3-D volumetric MRI to compare overall fetal and neonatal brain growth as well as growth in key regions including cortical grey matter, white matter, deep grey matter, lateral ventricles, external cerebrospinal fluid, cerebellum, brain stem, amygdala and the hippocampus.

The research is an offshoot of a prospective study funded by the National Institutes of Health that uses advanced imaging techniques to record brain growth in 50 fetuses in pregnancies complicated by CHD who need open heart surgery and 50 healthy fetuses. MRI studies are conducted during the second trimester (24 to 28 weeks gestational age), third trimester (33 to 37 weeks gestational age) and shortly after birth but before surgery. In addition, fetal and neonatal MRI measurements will be correlated with validated scales that measure infants’ and toddlers’ overall development, behavior and social/emotional maturity.

“I am humbled to be selected for this prestigious award,” Wu says. “The findings from our ongoing work could be instrumental in identifying strategies for clinicians and care teams managing high-risk pregnancies to optimize fetal brain development and infants’ overall quality of life.”

Children’s National Health System named as member of the Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy’s (PPMD) Certified Duchenne Care Centers

mitochondria

Children’s National Health System is now part of a growing Duchenne care network, becoming the newest member of the Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy’s (PPMD) Certified Duchenne Care Centers.

The certification process to become a Certified Duchenne Care Center (CDCC) was grounded in the idea that comprehensive Duchenne care and services should be available and accessible to as many families as possible. By joining the network of PPMD Certified Duchenne Care Centers and standardizing care, Children’s National’s Neuromuscular Medicine Program is also improving Duchenne research and clinical trials by decreasing variability in care and increasing the quality of clinical trial outcome measures. This results in accelerating the time it takes therapies to reach the patients who need them.

By allowing neuromuscular patients of all diagnoses access to the comprehensive teams of sub-specialists serving the Duchenne population, Children’s National and other PPMD Certified Duchenne Care Centers will improve the care of all patients with neuromuscular diagnoses.

Randi Streisand

Randi Streisand, Ph.D., appointed Chief of Psychology and Behavioral Health at Children’s National Health System

Randi Streisand

Children’s National Health System announces that Randi Streisand, Ph.D., will become the chief of Psychology and Behavioral Health within the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine. Dr. Streisand is a behavioral scientist, child health researcher and certified diabetes educator. She is a tenured professor of Psychology and Behavioral Health, and Pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and serves as the director of Psychology Research for Children’s National Health System.

“Dr. Streisand’s acceptance of this leadership position will play an integral role in our approach to improve research methods and providing comprehensive approaches to psychological treatments” says Roger J. Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine.

As chief, Dr. Streisand will lead our team of nationally recognized educators, research leaders and specialists who are experts in the care of children and teens with emotional and behavioral disorders. She will also continue to lead an extensive research portfolio, focusing on parent-child adjustment to chronic disease, behavioral interventions to prevent and control disease and treatment complications and adherence to pediatric medical regimens.

Before joining the faculty at Children’s National in 2000, Dr. Streisand received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Florida, completed her internship at Brown University and a fellowship at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She has written numerous publications in the areas of child health and serves on several grant review committees through Children’s National, NIH and the American Diabetes Association. At Children’s National, she is an active participant in the psychology training program, and mentors undergraduates, graduate students, interns, fellows and junior faculty members.

Making the grade: Children’s National is nation’s Top 5 children’s hospital

Children’s National rose in rankings to become the nation’s Top 5 children’s hospital according to the 2018-19 Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll released June 26, 2018, by U.S. News & World Report. Additionally, for the second straight year, Children’s Neonatology division led by Billie Lou Short, M.D., ranked No. 1 among 50 neonatal intensive care units ranked across the nation.

Children’s National also ranked in the Top 10 in six additional services:

For the eighth year running, Children’s National ranked in all 10 specialty services, which underscores its unwavering commitment to excellence, continuous quality improvement and unmatched pediatric expertise throughout the organization.

“It’s a distinct honor for Children’s physicians, nurses and employees to be recognized as the nation’s Top 5 pediatric hospital. Children’s National provides the nation’s best care for kids and our dedicated physicians, neonatologists, surgeons, neuroscientists and other specialists, nurses and other clinical support teams are the reason why,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., Children’s President and CEO. “All of the Children’s staff is committed to ensuring that our kids and families enjoy the very best health outcomes today and for the rest of their lives.”

The excellence of Children’s care is made possible by our research insights and clinical innovations. In addition to being named to the U.S. News Honor Roll, a distinction awarded to just 10 children’s centers around the nation, Children’s National is a two-time Magnet® designated hospital for excellence in nursing and is a Leapfrog Group Top Hospital. Children’s ranks seventh among pediatric hospitals in funding from the National Institutes of Health, with a combined $40 million in direct and indirect funding, and transfers the latest research insights from the bench to patients’ bedsides.

“The 10 pediatric centers on this year’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll deliver exceptional care across a range of specialties and deserve to be highlighted,” says Ben Harder, chief of health analysis at U.S. News. “Day after day, these hospitals provide state-of-the-art medical expertise to children with complex conditions. Their U.S. News’ rankings reflect their commitment to providing high-quality care.”

The 12th annual rankings recognize the top 50 pediatric facilities across the U.S. in 10 pediatric specialties: cancer, cardiology and heart surgery, diabetes and endocrinology, gastroenterology and gastrointestinal surgery, neonatology, nephrology, neurology and neurosurgery, orthopedics, pulmonology and urology. Hospitals received points for being ranked in a specialty, and higher-ranking hospitals receive more points. The Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll recognizes the 10 hospitals that received the most points overall.

This year’s rankings will be published in the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hospitals 2019” guidebook, available for purchase in late September.

An-Massaro

Keeping an eye on autonomic function for infants with HIE

An-Massaro

“By including heart rate variability measurements and other markers of autonomic function in our current predictive armamentarium,” says An Massaro, M.D., “we may be able to offer new hope for infants with HIE.”

In about two to three in every 1,000 full-term births, babies develop a neurological condition called hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) when their brains receive insufficient oxygen. HIE can be a devastating condition, leading to severe developmental or cognitive delays or motor impairments that become more evident as the child grows older. Despite improvements in care – including therapeutic hypothermia, a whole-body cooling method administered shortly after birth that can slow brain damage – about half of children with this condition die from neurological complications by age 2.

Finding ways to identify children with the most severe HIE could help researchers focus their efforts and provide even more intense neuroprotective care, explains An Massaro, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National Health System. But thus far, it’s been unclear which symptoms reflect the extent of HIE-induced brain damage.

That’s why Dr. Massaro and colleagues embarked on a study published in the May 2018 issue of Journal of Pediatrics. The team sought to determine whether dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – the auto-pilot part of the nervous system responsible for unconscious bodily functions, such as breathing and digestion – reflected in routine care events can be used as a marker for brain injury severity.

The researchers collected data from 25 infants who were treated for HIE with therapeutic hypothermia at Children’s National. Thanks to multi-modal monitoring, these babies’ medical records hold a treasure trove of information, explains Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., a staff scientist in Children’s Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab.

In addition to including continuous heart rate tracings and blood pressure readings that are standard for many infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), they also recorded cerebral near infrared spectroscopy, a monitor that measures brain tissue oxygen levels. The investigators performed detailed analyses to evaluate how these monitor readings change in response to a variety of routine care events, such as diaper changes, heel sticks, endotracheal tube manipulations and pupil examinations.

The researchers stratified these infants based on how dysfunctional their ANS behaved by using heart rate variability as a marker: The fewer natural fluctuations in heart rate, the more damaged their ANS was thought to be. And they also used non-invasive brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine brain damage. They then compared this information with the babies’ physiological responses during each care event.

Their findings show that infants with impaired ANS, based on depressed heart rate variability before the care event, had significantly different responses to these care events compared with babies with intact ANS.

  • For stimulating interventions, such as diaper changes and heel sticks, both heart rate and blood pressure increased in babies with intact ANS but decreased in babies with impaired ones.
  • Shining a light in their pupils led to an expected decreased heart rate with stable blood pressure in ANS-intact infants, but in ANS-impaired infants, there was no responsive change in heart rate and, additionally, a decrease in blood pressure was observed.
  • Responses were similar between the two groups during breathing tube manipulations, except for a slight increase in heart rate a few minutes later in the ANS-impaired group.

These results, Govindan explains, suggest that a real-time, continuous way to assess ANS function may offer insights into the expected physiological response for a given infant during routine NICU care.

“This is exactly the type of additional information that intensivists need to pinpoint infants who may benefit from additional neuroprotective support,” he says. “Right now, it is standard practice to monitor brain activity continuously using electroencephalogram and to check the status of the brain using MRI to assess the response to therapeutic cooling. Neither of these assessments can be readily used by neonatologists at the bedside in real-time to make clinical decisions.”

Assessing ANS function in real-time can help guide neuroprotective care in high-risk newborns by providing insight into the evolving nature of brain damage in these infants, Dr. Massaro adds.

Beyond simply serving as a biomarker into brain injury, poor ANS function also could contribute to the development of secondary injury in newborns with HIE by stymieing the normal changes in heart rate and blood pressure that help oxygenate and heal injured brains. The researchers found that the cumulative duration of autonomic impairment was significantly correlated with the severity of brain injury visible by MRI in this group of infants.

“By including heart rate variability measurements and other markers of autonomic function in our current predictive armamentarium,” says Dr. Massaro, “we may be able to offer new hope for infants with HIE.”

In addition to Dr. Massaro, the Senior Author, study co-authors include Lead Author, Heather Campbell, M.D.; Rathinaswamy B. Govindan, Ph.D., Children’s Advanced Physiological Signals Processing Lab; Srinivas Kota, Ph.D.; Tareq Al-Shargabi, M.S.; Marina Metzler, B.S.; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Children’s neonatalogist; Taeun Chang, M.D., Children’s neonatal and fetal neurologist; L. Gilbert Vezina, M.D., attending in Children’s Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; and Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., chief of Children’s Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine.

This research was supported by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National under awards UL1TR000075 and 1KL2RR031987-01 and the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Consortium within the National Institutes of Health under award P30HD040677.

Anna Penn

Protecting the fetal brain from harm

Anna Penn

Ongoing placental dysfunction and allopregnanolone loss, not the increase that was expected due to stress, may alter cortical development in complicated pregnancies and put babies at risk, says Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D.

Researchers long have known that allopregnanolone (ALLO), a derivative of the hormone progesterone, is produced in adults’ brains during times of acute stress and modulates how easily the brain’s neurons fire. ALLO also is produced in the placenta during fetal development, one of more than 200 different hormones that each uniquely contribute to fostering a smooth pregnancy and maintaining a fetus’ overall health. Although ALLO is thought to protect the developing brain in pregnancies complicated by conditions that might harm it, such as high blood pressure, how its levels evolve during pregnancy and in newborns shortly after birth has remained unknown.

Now, a new study presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) 2018 annual meeting suggests that the placenta ramps up ALLO production over the second trimester, peaking just as fetuses approach full term.

To investigate this phenomenon, Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., a neonatologist/neuroscientist at Children’s National Health System, and colleagues created a designer experimental model to study how premature loss of ALLO alters orderly brain development. Knowing more about the interplay between ALLO and normal development of the cortex, the outer layer of the cerebrum, is a first step that could lead to strategies to rescue this vital brain region.

“The cortex is basically the brain’s command-and-control center for higher functions. In our experimental model, it develops from the middle of gestation through to the end of gestation. If ALLO levels are disrupted just as these cells are being born, neurons migrating to the cortex are altered and the developing neural network is compromised,” says Dr. Penn, senior author of the research presented at PAS 2018. “We’re concerned this same phenomenon occurs in human infants whose preterm birth disrupts their supply of this essential hormone.”

To better understand the human placental hormone pattern, the research team analyzed cord blood or serum samples collected within the first 36 hours of life for 61 preterm newborns born between 24 to 36 gestational weeks. They compared those preemie samples with samples drawn from 61 newborns carried to term who were matched by race, gender, size for gestational age, delivery method and maternal demographics.

They used liquid-chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry, a technique that can precisely analyze trace levels of compounds, to compare levels of 27 different steroids, including ALLO and its precursors as well as better-known adrenal gland hormones, such as cortisol and 17-Hydroxyprogesterone.

“Pregnancies complicated by hypertension tended to correlate with lower ALLO levels, though this finding did not reach statistical significance. This suggests that ongoing placental dysfunction and ALLO loss, not the increase that we expected to be caused by stress, may alter cortical development in these pregnancies and put babies at risk,” Dr. Penn adds. “In addition, having the largest neonatal sample set to date in which multiple steroid hormones have been measured can provide insight into the shifting hormone patterns that occur around 36 weeks gestation, just prior to term. Hopefully, restoring the normal hormonal milieu for preemies or other at-risk newborns will improve neurological outcomes in the future.”

In addition to Dr. Penn, study co-authors include Caitlin Drumm, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital; Sameer Desale, MedStar Health Research Institute; and Kathi Huddleston, Benjamin Solomon and John Niederhuber, Inova Translational Medicine Institute.

Gerard Gioia

Concussion prevention and better management of youth concussions headline Sports Neuropsychology Society Concussion Symposium

Gerard Gioia

Gerard Gioia, Ph.D., an internationally recognized expert in pediatric concussion management, was named president of the Sports Neuropsychology Society at the conclusion of this year’s meeting.

“We know how critical it is to identify and appropriately treat every concussion, particularly when they happen early in an athlete’s career,” Children’s National President and CEO Kurt Newman, M.D.,  told a crowd of nearly 300 sports concussion experts gathered in Washington, D.C. for the Sports Neuropsychology Society’s (SNS) 6th Annual Concussion Symposium.

Children’s National served as a title sponsor of the conference, which serves as the annual meeting for SNS. Each year, members from around the world meet to share best practices in sports-related concussion management through presentation of evidence-based studies on a wide range of related topics. This year’s presentations included topics such as:

  • Sex differences in sport-related concussion: Incidence, outcomes and recovery
  • Concussion Clinical Profiles and Targeted Treatments: Building the Evidence
  • Legislative advocacy and the sports neuropsychologist
  • Treatment of concussion in kids: What we know, what we think we know, and what we need to learn

“This meeting and its agenda, held in D.C. where we’ve done so much work on understanding concussion management for children, is particularly meaningful for me because it really drives home our key message of a link between active participation in sports, appropriate recognition, management of youth concussions and the developing  athlete’s brain health,” says Gerard Gioia, Ph.D., division chief of neuropsychology and director of the Safe Concussion Outcome, Recovery and Education (SCORE) program at Children’s National.

Dr. Gioia, an internationally recognized expert in pediatric concussion management, was named president of the society at the conclusion of this year’s meeting, which was held in Washington, D.C. from May 3-5, 2018. During his two year term, he will work with members to advance the mission of SNS, which seeks to advance the field of neuropsychology to generate and disseminate knowledge regarding brain-behavior relationships as it applies to sports, and to promote the welfare of athletes at all levels.

“The way we can really help our youth athletes is by understanding how we can maximally prevent concussions in sports, and how we can manage those earliest concussions more effectively to minimize the negative long term consequences,” says Dr. Gioia.

Preemie Baby

Brain food for preemies

Preemie Baby

Babies born prematurely – before 37 weeks of pregnancy – often have a lot of catching up to do. Not just in size. Preterm infants typically lag behind their term peers in a variety of areas as they grow up, including motor development, behavior and school performance.

New research suggests one way to combat this problem. The study, led by Children’s researchers and presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2018 annual meeting, suggests that the volume of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and calories consumed by very vulnerable premature infants significantly contributes to increased brain volume and white matter development, even though additional research is needed to determine specific nutritional approaches that best support these infants’ developing brains.

During the final weeks of pregnancy, the fetal brain undergoes an unprecedented growth spurt, dramatically increasing in volume as well as structural complexity as the fetus approaches full term.

One in 10 infants born in the U.S. in 2016 was born before 37 weeks of gestation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within this group, very low birthweight preemies are at significant risk for growth failure and neurocognitive impairment. Nutritional support in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) helps to encourage optimal brain development among preterm infants. However, their brain growth rates still lag behind those seen in full-term newborns.

“Few studies have investigated the impact of early macronutrient and caloric intake on microstructural brain development in vulnerable preterm infants,” says Katherine Ottolini, lead author of the Children’s-led study. “Advanced quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques may help to fill that data gap in order to better direct targeted interventions to newborns who are most in need.”

The research team at Children’s National Health System enrolled 69 infants who were born younger than 32 gestational weeks and weighed less than 1,500 grams. The infants’ mean birth weight was 970 grams and their mean gestational age at birth was 27.6 weeks.

The newborns underwent MRI at their term-equivalent age, 40 weeks gestation. Parametric maps were generated for fractional anisotropy in regions of the cerebrum and cerebellum for diffusion tensor imaging analyses, which measures brain connectivity and white matter tract integrity. The research team also tracked nutritional data: Grams per kilogram of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and overall caloric intake.

“We found a significantly negative association between fractional anisotropy and cumulative macronutrient/caloric intake,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of Children’s Developing Brain Research Laboratory and senior author of the research. “Curiously, we also find significantly negative association between macronutrient/caloric intake and regional brain volume in the cortical and deep gray matter, cerebellum and brainstem.”

Because the nutritional support does contribute to cerebral volumes and white matter microstructural development in very vulnerable newborns, Limperopoulos says the significant negative associations seen in this study may reflect the longer period of time these infants relied on nutritional support in the NICU.

In addition to Ottolini and Limperopoulos, study co-authors include Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Children’s Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine; and Kushal Kapse.

An-Massaro

How EPO saves babies’ brains

An-Massaro

“These findings suggest that EPO’s neuroprotective effect may be mediated by epigenetic regulation of genes involved in the development of the nervous system and that play pivotal roles in how the body responds to inflammation and hypoxia,” says An Massaro, M.D.

The drug erythropoietin (EPO) has a long history. First used more than three decades ago to treat anemia, it’s now a mainstay for treating several types of this blood-depleting disorder, including anemia caused by chronic kidney disease, myelodysplasia and cancer chemotherapy.

More recently, researchers discovered a new use for this old drug: Treating premature infants to protect and repair their vulnerable brains. However, how EPO accomplishes this feat has remained unknown. New genetic analyses presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2018 annual meeting that was conducted by a multi-institutional team that includes researchers from Children’s National show that this drug may work its neuroprotective magic by modifying genes essential for regulating growth and development of nervous tissue as well as genes that respond to inflammation and hypoxia.

“During the last trimester of pregnancy, the fetal brain undergoes tremendous growth. When infants are born weeks before their due dates, these newborns’ developing brains are vulnerable to many potential insults as they are supported in the neonatal intensive care unit during this critical time,” says An Massaro, M.D., an attending neonatologist at Children’s National Health System and lead author of the research. “EPO, a cytokine that protects and repairs neurons, is a very promising therapeutic approach to support the developing brains of extremely low gestational age neonates.”

The research team investigated whether micro-preemies treated with EPO had distinct DNA methylation profiles and related changes in expression of genes that regulate how the body responds to such environmental stressors as inflammation, hypoxia and oxidative stress.  They also investigated changes in genes involved in glial differentiation and myelination, production of an insulating layer essential for a properly functioning nervous system. The genetic analyses are an offshoot of a large, randomized clinical trial of EPO to treat preterm infants born between 24 and 27 gestational weeks.

The DNA of 18 newborns enrolled in the clinical trial was isolated from specimens drawn within 24 hours of birth and at day 14 of life. Eleven newborns were treated with EPO; a seven-infant control group received placebo.

DNA methylation and whole transcriptome analyses identified 240 candidate differentially methylated regions and more than 50 associated genes that were expressed differentially in infants treated with EPO compared with the control group. Gene ontology testing further narrowed the list to five candidate genes that are essential for normal neurodevelopment and for repairing brain injury:

“These findings suggest that EPO’s neuroprotective effect may be mediated by epigenetic regulation of genes involved in the development of the nervous system and that play pivotal roles in how the body responds to inflammation and hypoxia,” Dr. Massaro says.

In addition to Dr. Massaro, study co-authors include Theo K. Bammler, James W. MacDonald, biostatistician, Bryan Comstock, senior research scientist, and Sandra “Sunny” Juul, M.D., Ph.D., study principal investigator, all of University of Washington.