Pedbot video game

New robotic therapies for cerebral palsy

Little girl on hippobot

The hippobot is a mechanical horseback riding simulator that provides hippotherapy for children.

Cerebral palsy is the most common type of movement disorder in children, affecting 1 in 500 babies born each year. For these infants, learning to sit up, stand and walk can be a big challenge which often requires years of physical therapy to stretch and strengthen their muscles. A team led by Kevin Cleary, Ph.D., technical director of the Bioengineering Initiative at Children’s National Health System, and Sally Evans, M.D., director of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine at Children’s National, has created two new types of robotic therapy that they hope will make physical therapy more enjoyable and accessible for children.

Hippobot equine therapy simulator

One of the most effective types of therapy for children with cerebral palsy is hippotherapy, which uses horseback riding to rehabilitate children with neurological and musculoskeletal disabilities. The movement of horses helps riders with cerebral palsy improve endurance, balance and core strength, which in turns helps them gain the ability to sit without support. If a child with cerebral palsy does not master independent sitting early in life, he or she may never gain the ability to stand or walk. Unfortunately, many children never have the chance to experience hippotherapy due to geographical constraints and cost issues.

To increase patient access to hippotherapy, the bioengineering team (Reza Monfaredi, Ph.D.; Hadi Fooladi Talari, M.S.; Pooneh Roshani Tabrizi, Ph.D.; and Tyler Salvador, B.S.) developed the hippobot — a mechanical horseback riding simulator that provides hippotherapy for children ages 4 to 10 in the office setting. To create the hippobot, the researchers mounted a carousel horse on a six-degree of freedom commercial motion platform (the platform moves in the x, y and z directions and rotates about roll, pitch and yaw axes). They then programmed the platform to simulate a horse walking, trotting and cantering.

“Several experienced horse riders have tried the motion platform and commented that it gives a realistic feel,” says Dr. Cleary.

The team then incorporated optical tracking of the hippobot rider’s spine and pelvis to monitor their posture and created a virtual reality video display that simulates a horse moving down a pier. As other animals come towards the horse, the rider must lean right or left to avoid them.  The trackers on their back show which way they are leaning and feed that information into the gaming system.

“We wanted to see how the patient’s spine reacts as the horse moves through different patterns, and if the patients get better at maintaining their posture over several sessions,” says Dr. Cleary.

To date the system has been used with several children with cerebral palsy under an IRB-approved study. All of the participants enjoyed riding the horse and came back for multiple sessions.

The hippobot system was developed in close collaboration with the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Division at Children’s National, including Olga Morozova, M.D., Justin Burton, M.D., and Justine Belschner, P.T.

Pedbot ankle rehabilitation system

Pedbot video game

Patients use pedbot as an input device to pilot an airplane through a series of hoops. The level of the difficulty of the game can be easily adjusted based on the patient’s capability and physical condition.

More than half of children with cerebral palsy also have gait impairment as a result of excessive plantar flexion and foot inversion/eversion, or equinovarus/equinovalgus at their ankle and foot. To help these patients, Dr. Cleary’s team developed the pedbot — a small robot platform that enables better strengthening, motor control and range of motion in the ankle joint.

“Children with cerebral palsy have difficulty walking in part because they have trouble controlling their feet,” explains Dr. Evans. “Use of pedbot as part of therapy can help to give them increased control of their feet.”

Most ankle rehabilitation robots are limited in their movements, and have only one or two degrees of freedom, focusing on ankle dorsiflexion/plantarflexion and sometimes inversion/eversion. Pedbot is unique in that it has three degrees of freedom with a remote center of motion in the ankle joint area that allows it to move in ways other devices can’t.

The pedbot platform can move in three translational directions (x, y and z) and also rotate about three axes (the x, y and z axes). As an analogy, this is similar to the movement of a flight simulator. The system also includes motors and encoders at each axis and can be used in passive and active modes.

In both modes, the patient sits on a therapy chair with their foot strapped to the robotic device. In the passive mode, the therapist assists the patient in training motions along each axis. The robot can then repeat the motion under therapist supervision while incrementally increasing the range of motion as desired by the therapist.

For the active mode or “gaming” mode, the team developed a video game based on an airplane motif. Patients use pedbot as an input device to pilot an airplane through a series of hoops. The level of the difficulty of the game can be easily adjusted based on the patient’s capability and physical condition.

To date, four patients have participated in an IRB-approved clinical trial for the pedbot. All of the patients enjoyed the game and they were willing to continue to participate as suggested by a physiotherapist.

The pedbot team, in addition to the engineers mentioned above, includes Catherine Coley, P.T.; Stacey Kovelman, P.T.; and Sara Alyamani, B.A. In future work, they plan to expand the system to include electromyography measurements with Paola Pergami, M.D.,Ph.D. They also are planning to develop a low cost, 3D printed version for the home market so children can do Pedbot therapy every day.

Nathan Smith

Sounding the alarm on fluorescent calcium dyes

“This study serves as a warning to other neuroscientists,” says Nathan A. Smith, Ph.D., a new principal investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System and first author of the study.

Scientists using chemical based fluorescent dyes to study the calcium dynamics of the cells within the central nervous system suspected that something external was disrupting normal cell function in their studies.

Neuroscientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Children’s National Health System have confirmed their suspicions by capturing data that shows, for the first time, how these fluorescent calcium dyes are causing cell damage when loaded over an extended period of time.  Their findings appeared in Science Signaling.

“This study serves as a warning to other neuroscientists,” says Nathan A. Smith, Ph.D., a new principal investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System and first author of the study. “As many of my colleagues have noted, we’ve known that something was going on, but now, we have evidence that the longer these dyes stay in cells, or the longer time it takes to load them into cells, the more problems we see with normal cell function.”

The study comparatively analyzed the effects of chemical and genetically encoded calcium ion indicators on cellular functions, which had not been previously performed. The outcomes showed that all of the fluorescent calcium dyes, including Fluo-4, Rhod-2, and FURA-2, had negative consequences for a number of cellular functions. For example, the dyes inhibited the sodium potassium pump (Na,K-ATPase), a membrane protein essential for many cellular membrane functions including the exchange between intracellular sodium ions (Na+) and extracellular potassium ions (K+). Inhibiting the Na,K-ATPase process results in the buildup of K+ ions in the synapses, leading to errant neural firing that has been linked to a number of disorders, including epilepsy. Additional observed impacts of exposure to the dyes included reduced cell viability, decreased glucose uptake, increased lactate release and cell swelling.

“Now, our field needs to take a step back and reevaluate findings that may have been influenced by these chemical trackers, to make sure that our observations were driven by our intended manipulations and not this additional factor,” Dr. Smith continues.

Non-chemical alternatives

Tracking calcium ions and their dynamics within the central nervous system through fluorescent calcium indicators is the primary method of measuring glial activity and glial interactions with other cell types. Unlike neurons, glial cells are electrically non-excitable; therefore electrical-based recording methods used to measure neuronal activity are ineffective.

In recent years, neuroscientists have developed additional methods to track calcium ions: genetically encoded calcium indicators (GECIs), which have grown in use since 2008. These GECIs have evolved over the years to have higher signal to noise ratios, target specific cell types and sub-compartments, and remain stable over time.*

Dr. Smith’s lab uses GECIs exclusively to monitor the calcium dynamics of glial brain cells called astrocytes as well as their interactions with other cells such as neurons. His work now seeks to understand how those interactions influence neural networks and how they operate differently in neurodevelopmental disorders, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), epilepsy and others.

“Our field has continued using these traditional calcium indicator dyes in labs because they are familiar and affordable,” Dr. Smith notes. “Our findings are a clear call to action that it’s time to revisit some of those approaches in favor of new technology.”

newborn in incubator

Tracking oxygen saturation with vital signs to identify vulnerable preemies



What’s known

Critically ill infants in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) require constant monitoring of their vital signs. Invasive methods, such as using umbilical arterial catheters to check blood pressure, are the gold standard but pose significant health risks. Low-risk noninvasive monitoring, such as continuous cardiorespiratory monitors, can measure heart rate, respiratory rate and blood oxygenation. A noninvasive technique called near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) can gauge how well tissues, including the brain, are oxygenated. While NIRS long has been used to monitor oxygenation in conditions in which blood flow is altered, such as bleeding in the brain, how NIRS values relate to other vital sign measures in NICU babies was unknown.

What’s new

A research team led by Khodayar Rais-Bahrami, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National Health System, investigated this question in 27 babies admitted to Children’s NICU. The researchers separated these subjects into two groups: Low birth weight (LBW, less than 1.5 kg or 3.3 pounds) and moderate birth weight (MBW, more than 1.5 kg). Then, they looked for correlations between information extracted from NIRS, such as tissue oxygenation (specific tissue oxygen saturation, StO2) and the balance between oxygen supply and consumption (fractional tissue oxygen extraction, FTOE), and various vital signs. They found that StO2 increased with blood pressure for LBW babies but decreased with blood pressure for MBW babies. Brain and body FTOE in LBW babies decreased with blood pressure. In babies with abnormal brain scans, brain StO2 increased with blood pressure and brain FTOE decreased with blood pressure. Together, the researchers suggest, these measures could give a more complete picture of critically ill babies’ health.

Questions for future research

Q: Can NIRS data be used as a surrogate for other forms of monitoring?

Q: How could NIRS data help health care professionals intervene to improve the health of critically ill infants in the NICU?

Source: Significant correlation between regional tissue oxygen saturation and vital signs of critically ill infants.” B. Massa-Buck, V. Amendola, R. McCloskey and K. Rais-Bahrami. Published by Frontiers in Pediatrics Dec. 21, 2017.


MRI opens new understanding of fetal growth restriction


Quantitative MRI can identify placental dysfunction complicated by fetal growth restriction earlier, creating the possibility for earlier intervention to minimize harm to the developing fetus.

A team of researchers has found that quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can identify pregnancies where placental dysfunction results in fetal growth restriction (FGR), creating the possibility for earlier FGR detection and intervention to augment placental function and thus minimize harm to the fetal brain.

The study, published online in the Journal of Perinatology, reports for the first time that in vivo placental volume is tied to global and regional fetal brain volumes.

Placental insufficiency is a known risk factor for impaired fetal growth and neurodevelopment. It may cause the fetus to receive inadequate oxygen and nutrients, making it difficult to grow and thrive. The earlier placental insufficiency occurs in a pregnancy, the more serious it can be. But detecting a failing placenta before the fetus is harmed has been difficult.

One additional challenge is that a fetus may be small because the placenta is not providing adequate nourishment. Or the fetus simply may be genetically predisposed to be smaller. Being able to tell the difference early can have a lifelong impact on a baby. Infants affected by FGR can experience behavioral problems, learning difficulties, memory and attention deficits, and psychiatric issues as the child grows into adolescence and adulthood.

“Our study proved that MRI can more accurately determine which pregnancies are at greater risk for impaired fetal health or compromised placenta function,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., the study’s lead author and a specialist in neonatology and neonatal neurology and neonatal critical care at Children’s National Health System. “The earlier we can identify these pregnancies, the more thoughtful we can be in managing care.”

Dr. Andescavage’s research focus has been how fetal growth affects labor, delivery and postnatal complications.


“Our study proved that MRI can more accurately determine which pregnancies are at greater risk for impaired fetal health or compromised placenta function,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., the study’s lead author.

“We don’t have a good understanding of why FGR happens, but we do know it’s hard to identify during pregnancy because often there are no signs,” says Dr. Andescavage. “Even when detected, it’s hard to follow. But if we’re aware of it, we can better address important questions, like when to deliver an at-risk fetus.”

In the study, the team measured placental and fetal brain growth in healthy, uncomplicated pregnancies and in pregnancies complicated by FGR. A total of 114 women participated, undergoing ultrasound, Doppler ultrasound and MRI imaging to measure placental volume and fetal brain volume.

An ultrasound test is often what detects FGR, but the measurements generated by ultrasound can be non-specific. In addition, reproducibility issues with 3D sonography limit its use as a standalone tool for placental assessment. Once FGR is detected via ultrasound, this study showed that complementary MRI provides more accurate structural measures of the fetal brain, as well as more detail and insight into placental growth and function.

“Our team has studied FGR for a few years, using imaging to see that’s happening with the fetus in real time,” says Dr. Andescavage. “The relationship of placental volume and fetal brain development had not been previously studied in utero.”

In pregnancies complicated by FGR, MRI showed markedly decreased placental and brain volumes. The team observed significantly smaller placental, total brain, cerebral and cerebellar volumes in these cases than in the healthy controls. The relationship between increasing placental volume and increasing total brain volume was similar in FGR and in normal pregnancies. However, the study authors write “the overall volumes were smaller and thus shifted downward in pregnancies with FGR.”

In addition, FGR-complicated pregnancies that also showed abnormalities in Doppler ultrasound imaging had even smaller placental, cerebral and cerebellar volumes than pregnancies complicated by FGR that did not have aberrations in Doppler imaging.

Since this study showed that quantitative fetal MRI can accurately detect decreased placental and brain volumes when FGR is present, Dr. Andescavage believes this imaging technique may give doctors important new insights into the timing and possibly the mechanisms of brain injury in FGR.  “Different pathways can lead to FGR. With this assessment strategy, we could potentially elucidate those,” she adds.

Using quantitative MRI to identify early deviations from normal growth may create opportunities for future interventions to protect the developing fetal brain. New treatments on the horizon promise to address placental health. MRI could be used to investigate these potential therapies in utero. When those therapies become available, it could allow doctors to monitor treatment effects in utero.

Study co-authors include Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., Director of Children’s Fetal Medicine Institute; Marina Metzler; Dorothy Bulas, M.D., FACR, FAIUM, FSRU, Chief of Children’s Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology; L. Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Director of Children’s Neuroradiology Program; Marni Jacobs; Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., Director of Children’s Developing Brain Research Laboratory and study senior author; Sabah N. Iqbal, MedStar Washington Hospital Center; and Ahmet Alexander Baschat, Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy.

Research reported in this post was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, MOP-81116; the National Institutes of Health under award numbers UL1TR000075 and KL2TR000076; and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National.

Neonatal baby

Multidisciplinary experts help CDC’s Zika research

“We are very excited about this next phase in our Zika research,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S. “It is a natural extension of our earlier participation as subject matter experts assisting as the CDC developed and published guidelines to inform the care of Zika-exposed and Zika-infected infants across the nation and U.S. territories.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is funding three multidisciplinary experts from the Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National Health System to collaborate on two of the CDC’s longitudinal Zika research projects in Colombia, South America.

“Zika en embarazadas y niños en Colombia” (ZEN) is a research study jointly designed by Colombia’s Instituto Nacional de Salud (INS) and the CDC to evaluate the association between Zika virus infection and adverse maternal, fetal and infant health outcomes. The study is following a large cohort of Colombian women from the first trimester of pregnancy, their male partners and their infants.

Under the six-month contract, Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., and Cara Biddle, M.D., M.P.H., will serve as consultants for the ZEN study providing expertise in pediatric infectious diseases, neurology, neurodevelopment and coordination of the complex care needs of Zika-affected infants.

The federal funding will underwrite the consultants’ work effort, as well as travel to the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta and to research sites in Colombia. To that end, Drs. DeBiasi, Mulkey and Biddle participated in a December 2017 kickoff meeting, joining ZEN team leaders based in the U.S. at the CDC, as well as the INS in Colombia, with whom they will conduct research and collaborate academically.


Cara Biddle, M.D., M.P.H., and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., also will serve as consultants for the ZEN study.

“We are very excited about this next phase in our Zika research,” says Dr. DeBiasi, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-director of the Children’s Zika program. “It is a natural extension of our earlier participation as subject matter experts assisting as the CDC developed and published guidelines to inform the care of Zika-exposed and Zika-infected infants across the nation and U.S. territories.”

Children’s National is leading its own longitudinal studies in Colombia that explore such questions as whether Zika-exposed infants whose neuroimaging appears normal when they are born experience any longer-term neurological issues and the role of genetics in neurologic injury following congenital Zika virus exposure and infection.

Carlos Ferreira Lopez

Researchers discover new gene variant for inherited amino acid-elevating disease

Carlos Ferreira Lopez

What’s known

Hypermethioninemia is a rare condition that causes elevated levels of methionine, an essential amino acid in humans. This condition stems from genetic variations inherited from one or both parents. Some forms of hypermethioninemia are recessive, meaning that two copies of defective genes are necessary to cause this disease. Other forms are dominant, meaning that only one copy can cause hypermethioninemia. Recessive forms of the disease tend to have more serious consequences, causing elevated methionine levels throughout life and leading to changes in the brain’s white matter visible on magnetic resonance imaging that can cause neurological problems. The dominant forms are generally thought to be largely benign and require minimal follow-up.

What’s new

A research team led by Carlos R. Ferreira, M.D., a medical geneticist at Children’s National Health System, discovered a new gene variant that had not been associated with hypermethioinemia previously when an infant who had tested positive for elevated methionine on newborn blood-spot screening came in for a follow-up evaluation. While the majority of dominant hypermethioninemia are caused by a genetic mutation known as MAT1A p.Arg264His, the child didn’t have this or any of the common recessive hypermethioninemia mutations. Genetic testing showed that she carried a different mutation to the MAT1A gene known as p.Ala259Val, of which she carried only a single copy. The child fit the typical profile of having the dominant form of the disease, with methionine levels gradually declining over time. Testing of her mother showed that she carried the same gene variant, with few consequences other than a hepatitis-like illness as a child. Because liver disease can accompany dominant hypermethioninemia, the infant’s doctors will continue periodic follow-up to ensure she remains healthy.

Questions for future research

Q: Besides the potential for harmful liver effects, does dominant hypermethioninemia have other negative consequences?

Q: How common is this gene variant, and are certain people at more risk for carrying it?

Source: Confirmation that MAT1A p.Ala259Val mutation causes autosomal dominant hypermethioninemia. Muriello, M.J., S. Viall, T. Bottiglieri, K. Cusmano-Ozog and C. R. Ferreira. Published by Molecular Genetics and Metabolism Reports December 2017.

William Gaillard

Putting childhood epilepsy in the spotlight at American Epilepsy Society Meeting

William Gaillard

“We aim to build the evidence base for treatments that are effective specifically for children with epilepsy,” says William D. Gaillard, M.D., chief of Child Neurology, Epilepsy and Neurophysiology, and director of the Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program.

While epilepsy affects people of all ages, the unique way it manifests in infants, children and adolescents can be attributed in part to the complexities of the growing and developing brain. Researchers from the Children’s National Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program brought their expertise on the challenges of understanding and treating epilepsy in children to the recent American Epilepsy Society Annual Meeting, the largest professional gathering on epilepsy in the world.

“We aim to build the evidence base for treatments that are effective specifically for children with epilepsy,” says William D. Gaillard, M.D., chief of Child Neurology, Epilepsy and Neurophysiology, and director of the Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program. “We have learned much from studies in adult populations but technologies like functional MRI allow us to get in-depth understanding, often in non-invasive ways, of precisely how epilepsy is impacting a child.”

Dr. Gaillard was also recently elected to serve as the Second Vice President of the American Epilepsy Society. “The AES is the largest multidisciplinary professional and scientific society dedicated to the understanding, treatment and eradication of epilepsy and associated disorders, and I am honored to serve as the new Second Vice President,” he said.

The team’s presentations and poster sessions focused on several key areas in pediatric epilepsy:

Better ways to see, measure and quantify activity and changes in the brain for children with epilepsy before, during and after surgery

  • Novel applications of fMRI for children with epilepsy
    • Evaluation of an fMRI tool that tracks verbal and visual memory in children with epilepsy – one of the first to capture memory functions in this population of children using noninvasive fMRI;
    • Early study of the use of “resting-state” fMRI to map language skills before epilepsy surgery – an important first step toward noninvasively evaluating children who are too young or neurologically impaired to follow tasks in traditional MRI studies;
  • A study of whether intraoperative MRI, i.e. imaging during neurosurgery, allows for more complete removal of abnormal brain tissue associated with focal cortical dysplasia in children, which is a common cause of intractable epilepsy;
  • A preliminary case review of existing data to see if arterial spin labeling MRI, which measures blood flow to the brain, has potential to identify blood flow changes in specific locations of the brain where seizures occur;
  • An analysis of language laterality – the dominant side of the brain controlling language –  questioning the true reasons that the brains of children with epilepsy have differences in the hemisphere that predominantly controls language;
  • A review of some common assessments of language and working memory that are used pre- and post-operatively to gauge the impacts of pediatric epilepsy surgery. The study found that using multiple assessments, and studying results individually rather than as a group average, resulted in a more complete picture of the outcomes of surgery on these areas of brain function;
  • A preliminary study examining whether continuous EEG monitoring of neonates with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, or lack of oxygen to the brain, can be a reliable predictor of neurodevelopmental outcomes while the infant is undergoing therapeutic hypothermia.

“In order to expand our understanding of causes, impacts and outcomes, the range of research is broad given the complexity of epilepsym,” says Madison M. Berl, Ph.D. “This is the only way we can contribute to the goal of providing our colleagues and the families they serve with better resources to make informed decisions about how best to assess and treat pediatric epilepsy.”

The molecular, genetic and biological factors that contribute to onset and severity of pediatric epilepsy

  • A retrospective study of young patients with malformations in cortical development that are important causes of childhood epilepsy;
  • Investigation of a simple saliva test to effectively identify the presence of two common viral infections, human herpesvirus-6B and Epstein-Barr virus, that may be contributors to onset of epilepsy in otherwise normally functioning brains;
  • A preliminary review of the possible relationship between febrile infection-related epilepsy syndrome and the co-occurrence of another neuro-inflammatory condition – hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis.

Madison Berl, Ph.D., director of research in the Division of Pediatric Neuropsychology, and a pediatric neuropsychologist in the Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program, adds, “In order to expand our understanding of causes, impacts and outcomes, the range of research is broad given the complexity of epilepsy. This is the only way we can contribute to the goal of providing our colleagues and the families they serve with better resources to make informed decisions about how best to assess and treat pediatric epilepsy.”

the cerebral blood flow (CBF) maps, corresponding anatomical image aligned to the CBF map, and the regions of interest examined

Tracking preemies’ blood flow to monitor brain maturation

Blood is the conduit through which our cells receive much of what they need to grow and thrive. The nutrients and oxygen that cells require are transported by this liquid messenger. Getting adequate blood flow is especially important during the rapid growth of gestation and early childhood – particularly for the brain, the weight of which roughly triples during the last 13 weeks of a typical pregnancy. Any disruption to blood flow during this time could dramatically affect the development of this critical organ.

Now, a new study by Children’s National Health System researchers finds that blood flow to key regions of very premature infants’ brains is altered, providing an early warning sign of disturbed brain maturation well before such injury is visible on conventional imaging. The prospective, observational study was published online Dec. 4, 2017 by The Journal of Pediatrics.

“During the third trimester of pregnancy, the fetal brain undergoes an unprecedented growth spurt. To power that growth, cerebral blood flow increases and delivers the extra oxygen and nutrients needed to nurture normal brain development,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior author of the study. “In full-term pregnancies, these critical brain structures mature inside the protective womb where the fetus can hear the mother and her heartbeat, which stimulates additional brain maturation. For infants born preterm, however, this essential maturation process happens in settings often stripped of such stimuli.”

The challenge: How to capture what goes right or wrong in the developing brains of these very fragile newborns? The researchers relied on arterial spin labeling (ASL) magnetic resonance (MR) imaging, a noninvasive technique that labels the water portion of blood to map how blood flows through infants’ brains in order to describe which regions do or do not receive adequate blood supply. The imaging work can be done without a contrast agent since water from arterial blood itself illuminates the path traveled by cerebral blood.

“In our study, very preterm infants had greater absolute cortical cerebral blood flow compared with full-term infants. Within regions, however, the insula (a region critical to experiencing emotion), anterior cingulate cortex (a region involved in cognitive processes) and auditory cortex (a region involved in processing sound) for preterm infants received a significantly decreased volume of blood, compared with full-term infants. For preterm infants, parenchymal brain injury and the need for cardiac vasopressor support both were correlated with decreased regional CBF,” Limperopoulos adds.

The team studied 98 preterm infants who were born June 2012 to December 2015, were younger than 32 gestational weeks at birth and who weighed less than 1,500 grams. They matched those preemies by gestational age with 104 infants who had been carried to term. The brain MRIs were performed as the infants slept.

Blood flows where it is needed most with areas of the brain that are used more heavily commandeering more oxygen and nutrients. Thus, during brain development, CBF is a good indicator of functional brain maturation since brain areas that are the most metabolically active need more blood.

the cerebral blood flow (CBF) maps, corresponding anatomical image aligned to the CBF map, and the regions of interest examined

This figure represents the cerebral blood flow (CBF) maps, corresponding anatomical image aligned to the CBF map, and the regions of interest examined. The scale indicates the quantitative value of the CBF map and is expressed in mL/100g/min. The data are from a preterm infant scanned at term age without evidence of brain injury. The insula (see black arrows in panel ‘D’) may be particularly vulnerable to the added stresses of the preterm infant’s life outside the womb.
Credit: M. Bouyssi-Kobar, et al., The Journal of Pediatrics.

“The ongoing maturation of the newborn’s brain can be seen in the distribution pattern of cerebral blood flow, with the greatest volume of blood traveling to the brainstem and deep grey matter,” says Marine Bouyssi-Kobar, M.S., the study’s lead author. “Because of the sharp resolution provided by ASL-MR images, our study finds that in addition to the brainstem and deep grey matter, the insula and the areas of the brain responsible for sensory and motor functions are also among the most oxygenated regions. This underscores the critical importance of these brain regions in early brain development. In preterm infants, the insula may be particularly vulnerable to the added stresses of life outside the womb.”

Of note, compromised regional brain structures in adults are implicated in multiple neurodevelopmental disorders. “Altered development of the insula and anterior cingulate cortex in newborns may represent early warning signs of preterm infants at greater risk for long-term neurodevelopmental impairments,” Limperopoulos says.

Research reported in this post was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, MOP-81116; the SickKids Foundation, XG 06-069; and the National Institutes of Health under award number R01 HL116585-01.

newborn in incubator

Working to reduce brain injury in newborns

A new study from Children’s National Health System and Drexel University College of Medicine has identified a promising treatment to reduce or prevent brain injury in newborns who have suffered hypoxia-ischemia.

Research-clinicians at Children’s National Health System and Drexel University College of Medicine led the first study to identify a promising treatment to reduce or prevent brain injury in newborns who have suffered hypoxia-ischemia, a serious complication in which restricted blood flow deprives the brain of oxygen.

Consequences of brain injury resulting from oxygen deprivation affect the entire lifespan and range from mild (learning disabilities) to severe (inability to breathe, walk, talk or see). This complication can occur during or before birth due to maternal/placental problems, such as placental abruption or cord prolapse, or due to fetal/newborn issues, such as asphyxia due to labor difficulties, infection, fetal-maternal bleeding or twin-to-twin transfusion.

Published in Neonatology on Oct. 13, 2017, the study evaluated newborn experimental models exposed to hypoxia-ischemia. The experimental models were given standard cooling therapy (therapeutic hypothermia) alone and in combination with a selective Src kinase inhibitor, PP2, that blocks a regulatory enzyme of apoptosis (cell death), which intensifies as a result of hypoxia-ischemia. The Food and Drug Administration has approved a Src kinase inhibitor as an oncology treatment. This study is the first to test the benefits of blocking this enzyme in reducing the neurological damage caused by brain hypoxia-ischemia.

“In hypoxia-ischemia, CaM kinase is over-activated, but hypothermia has been shown to decrease this enzyme’s activation. We theorized that a Src kinase inhibitor, in addition to hypothermia, would further attenuate the activation of CaM kinase IV and that the result might be less brain damage,” explains Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s lead author, and a specialist in neonatology and neonatal neurocritical care at Children’s National. “From this study, we were pleased that this seems to be the case.”

The research team assessed neuropathology, adenosine triphosphate and phosphocreatine  concentrations as well as CaM kinase IV activity. The CaM kinase IV activity in cerebral tissue was 2,002 (plus or minus 729) with normal oxygen levels and in normal temperatures, 4,104 (plus or minus 542) in hypoxia with hypothermia treatment, and 2,165 (plus or minus 415) in hypoxia with hypothermia treatment combined with PP2 administration.

The authors conclude that hypothermia alone attenuated the over-activation of CaM kinase IV and improved neuropathology after hypoxia. However, the combination of hypothermia with Src kinase inhibition following hypoxia further attenuated the increased activation of CaM kinase IV, compared with hypothermia alone in the newborn experimental model brain.

Currently, the only treatment for hypoxia-ischemia is therapeutic hypothermia. Starting in the first six hours of life, doctors in the neonatal intensive care unit lower a baby’s temperature by about 3 degrees Celsius for three days. This therapy is proven to reduce neural defects by up to 30 percent, yet many infants still have poor outcomes even after the therapeutic cooling treatment.

“In oxygen deprivation of the brain, the pathways leading to cell death are over-activated, including the nuclear enzyme CaM kinase IV. We sought to intervene in this pathway to reduce the heightened cell death, which leads to brain damage,” explains Dr. Kratimenos, an assistant professor of pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences whose research focus is neonatal encephalopathy and therapeutic hypothermia.

To continue preclinical research into this approach, Dr. Kratimenos envisions studying the effect of other types of small molecule inhibitors to target the apoptotic cascade, perhaps in multiple doses, eliminating the potential side effects, and determining the best dose and duration of treatment.

“If confirmed by further studies, this approach─in combination with cooling─may help to further attenuate neurological damage that babies suffer after experiencing hypoxia-ischemia,” says Dr. Kratimenos.

The study co-authors include Ioannis Koutroulis, M.D., Ph.D., a faculty member in Children’s Division of Emergency Medicine; and Amit Jain, M.D.; Shadi Malaeb, M.D.; and the world-renowned neonatologist and pioneer in bioenergetics of the brain, Maria Delivoria-Papadopoulos, M.D., all of the Drexel University College of Medicine.

Adolescent brain scan from obesity study

Imaging captures obesity’s impact on the adolescent brain

Adolescent brain scan from obesity study

For the first time, a team of researchers led by Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University, has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to capture the brain function of a small population of adolescents with obesity, both before and after bariatric surgery.

Obesity affects the whole body, from more obvious physical impacts on bones and joints to more subtle, internal impacts on organs like the brain.

For the first time, a team of researchers has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to capture the brain function of a small population of adolescents with obesity, both before and after bariatric surgery. The goal is to better understand the neural changes that occur when an adolescent is obese, and determine the effectiveness of interventions, such as vertical sleeve gastrectomy, at improving brain function as weight is lost.

The study, published as the November Editors’ Choice in the journal Obesity, found that executive and reward-related brain functions of study participants with obesity improved following the surgical procedure and initial weight loss.

How bariatric surgery changes the teenage brain from Research Square on Vimeo.

“We’ve known for some time that severe obesity has negative consequences on some neurocognitive function areas for adults,” says Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University and a senior author of the study. “But for the first time, we’ve captured fMRI evidence in young patients, and also shown that surgical intervention and the resulting weight loss can reverse some of those deficits.”

“For me, this early evidence makes a strong case that when kids are struggling with severe obesity, we need to consider surgical intervention as an option sooner in the process,” notes Evan Nadler, M.D., director of the Bariatric Surgery Program at Children’s National Health System, who also contributed to the study. “The question that remains is whether the neurocognitive function improves more if surgery, and thus weight loss, happens earlier – and is there a time factor that should help us determine when to perform a procedure that will maximize improvements?”

The preliminary study included 36 participants and was conducted using patients recruited from the Children’s National Bariatric Surgery program, one of the first children’s hospitals to achieve national accreditation by the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Accreditation and Quality Improvement Program.

“We asked these questions because we know that in the kids we see, their behavioral, brain, and physical health are all very closely related to one another and have an impact on each other,” adds Eleanor Mackey, Ph.D., study senior author and co-principal investigator on the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases grant that funded the project. “We expected that as physical health improves, we might see corresponding improvements in brain and behavior such as cognitive and school performance.”

The study also pointed out some technical and practical challenges to studying this particular young population. Anyone with a BMI greater than 50 was not able to fit within the MR bore used in the study, preventing fMRI participation by those patients.

“In addition to future studies with a larger sample size, we’d like to see if there are neuroimaging markers of plasticity differences in a population with BMI greater than 50,” says Dr. Vaidya. “Does the severity of the obesity change how quickly the brain can adapt following surgery and weight loss?”

The abstract was selected by the journal’s editors as one that provides insights into preventing and treating obesity. It was featured at the Obesity Journal Symposium during Obesity Week 2017 in Washington, D.C., as part of the Obesity Week recognition, and a digital video abstract was also released about the findings.


Continuous EEG monitoring better predicts HIE outcomes


“What we were trying to determine with this study is whether evaluating the pattern of evolution of the aEEG as a whole provides more information compared with looking at snapshots in time,” explains the study’s senior author An N. Massaro, M.D.

For newborns who experience a serious complication that deprives their brain of oxygen, continuously monitoring brain activity and examining how the electrical signals evolve may be a more reliable way to identify infants most at risk for brain injury, compared with doing evaluations at discreet intervals, according to a prospective cohort study led by Children’s National Health System research-clinicians.

Amplitude-integrated electroencephalogram (aEEG) is a bedside tool that permits clinicians to monitor the complex electrical activity of the child’s brain over time. It’s a positive sign when an aEEG shows babies beginning to sleep and wake normally by the time they are 3 days old. Conversely, severely abnormal aEEG readings in the first days of life predict poor outcomes.

The Children’s team used aEEG with infants born with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), one of the most severe complications that can affect full-term infants. During pregnancy, birth or shortly after birth, a hypoxic-ischemic event can occur that impedes blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, resulting in destruction of brain tissue. Cooling (therapeutic hypothermia) is now standard for newborns with HIE in order to stave off life-long consequences, but deaths and neurodevelopmental disability still can occur.

“We know whole-body cooling – or lowering the body’s temperature by about 3 degrees Celsius – can help vulnerable newborns survive and can protect their brains from suffering profound injuries,” says An N. Massaro, M.D., a Children’s National neonatologist and senior author of the study published online Sept. 28, 2017 in American Journal of Perinatology.  “What we were trying to determine with this study is whether evaluating the pattern of evolution of the aEEG as a whole provides more information compared with looking at snapshots in time.”

Eighty infants undergoing therapeutic cooling who met the inclusion criteria were enrolled in the five-year study, one of the largest such studies to date. The babies weighed more than 1,800 grams and were older than 35 weeks’ gestational age at birth, and either needed prolonged resuscitation after birth or had low APGAR scores – a measure of how well newborns fare outside the womb. Continuous recordings of EEG data occurred from the time of admission up to 12 hours after the infants’ temperatures were raised to normal and aEEG tracings were calculated.

After the therapeutic cooling blankets were removed, the infants underwent at least one magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan prior to discharge. During the routine follow-up check at about 18 months of age, the HIE survivors’ cognitive and motor skills were assessed using validated instruments.

Fifty-six of the infants in the study had favorable outcomes. Twenty-four infants had adverse outcomes, including 15 with severe brain injury detected by MRI and nine infants who died. These children had lower APGAR scores at five minutes, and were more likely to have severe HIE and to have experienced more frequent seizures.

“Infants whose aEEG abnormalities do not improve were at increased risk: Infants who do not reach a discontinuous background pattern by 15.5 hours of life, achieve cycling by 45.5 hours after birth and who fail to achieve continuous normal voltage by 78 hours after birth are most at risk for adverse outcomes,” Dr. Massaro says. “In addition to defining worrisome trends, we found that overall assessment of continuous aEEG readings through the course of hypothermia treatment provide the most meaningful predictive power. This means we can speak with families at the bedside with more confidence about their child’s outcomes after the infant undergoes cooling therapy.”

Related Resources

Sarah Mulkey

Fetal MRI plus ultrasound assess Zika-related brain changes

Sarah Mulkey

Magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound provide complementary data needed to assess ongoing changes to the brains of fetuses exposed to Zika in utero, says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

For Zika-affected pregnancies, fetal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in addition to standard ultrasound (US) imaging can better assess potential brain abnormalities in utero, according to research presented by Children’s National Health System during IDWeek 2017. In cases of abnormal brain structure, fetal MRI can reveal more extensive areas of damage to the developing brain than is seen with US.

“MRI and US provide complementary data needed to assess ongoing changes to the brains of fetuses exposed to Zika in utero,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal/neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Health System and lead author of the research paper. “In addition, our study found that relying on ultrasound alone would have given one mother the false assurance that her fetus’ brain was developing normally while the sharper MRI clearly pointed to brain abnormalities.”

As of Sept. 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 1,901 U.S. women were exposed to Zika at some point during their pregnancies but their infants appeared normal at birth. Another 98 U.S. women, however, gave birth to infants with Zika-related birth defects.  And eight more women had pregnancy losses with Zika-related birth defects, according to CDC registries.

The longitudinal neuroimaging study led by Children’s National enrolled 48 pregnant women exposed to the Zika virus in the first or second trimester whose infection was confirmed by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, which detects Zika viral fragments shortly after exposure, and/or Immunoglobulin M testing, which reveals antibodies the body produces to neutralize the virus. Forty-six of the study volunteers live in Barranquilla, Colombia, where Zika infection is endemic. Two women live in the Washington region and were exposed to Zika during travel elsewhere.

All of the women underwent at least one diagnostic imaging session while pregnant, receiving an initial MRI or US at 25.1 weeks’ gestational age. Thirty-six women underwent a second MRI/US imaging pair at roughly 31 weeks’ gestation. Children’s National radiologists read every image.

Three of 48 pregnancies, or 6 percent, were marked by abnormal fetal MRIs:

  • One fetus had heterotopias (clumps of grey matter located at the wrong place) and abnormal cortical indent (a deformation at the outer layer of the cerebrum, a brain region involved in consciousness). The US taken at the same gestational age for this fetus showed its brain was developing normally.
  • Another fetus had parietal encephalocele (an uncommon skull defect) and Chiari malformation Type II (a life-threatening structural defect at the base of the skull and the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance). The US for this fetus also detected these brain abnormalities.
  • The third fetus had a thin corpus callosum (bundle of nerves that connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres), an abnormally developed brain stem, temporal cysts, subependymal heterotopias and general cerebral/cerebellar atrophy. This fetal US showed significant ventriculomegaly (fluid-filled structures in the brain that are too large) and a fetal head circumference that decreased sharply from the 32nd to 36th gestational week, a hallmark of microcephaly.

After they were born, infants underwent a follow-up MRI without sedation and US. For nine infants, these ultrasounds revealed cysts in the choroid plexus (cells that produce cerebrospinal fluid) or germinal matrix (the source for neurons and glial cells that migrate during brain development). And one infant’s US after birth showed lenticulostriate vasculopathy (brain lesions).

“Because a number of factors can trigger brain abnormalities, further studies are needed to determine whether the cystic changes to these infants’ brains are attributable to Zika exposure in the womb or whether some other insult caused these troubling results,” Dr. Mulkey says.

What Children’s has learned about congenital Zika infection

Roberta DeBiasi

Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., outlined lessons learned during a pediatric virology workshop at IDWeek2017, one of three such Zika presentations led by Children’s National research-clinicians during this year’s meeting of pediatric infectious disease specialists.

The Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National Health System provides a range of advanced testing and services for exposed and infected fetuses and newborns. Data that the program has gathered in evaluating and managing Zika-affected pregnancies and births may offer instructive insights to other centers developing similar programs.

The program evaluated 36 pregnant women and their fetuses from January 2016 through May 2017. Another 14 women and their infants were referred to the Zika program for postnatal consultations during that time.

“As the days grow shorter and temperatures drop, we continue to receive referrals to our Zika program, and this is a testament to the critical need it fulfills in the greater metropolitan D.C. region,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-leader of the program. “Our multidisciplinary team now has consulted on 90 dyads (mothers and their Zika-affected fetuses/infants). The lessons we learned about when and how these women were infected and how their offspring were affected by Zika may be instructive to institutions considering launching their own programs.”

Dr. DeBiasi outlined lessons learned during a pediatric virology workshop at IDWeek2017, one of three such Zika presentations led by Children’s National research-clinicians during this year’s meeting of pediatric infectious disease specialists.

“The Zika virus continues to circulate in dozens of nations, from Angola to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Clinicians considering a strategic approach to managing pregnancies complicated by Zika may consider enlisting an array of specialists to attend to infants’ complex care needs, including experts in fetal imaging, pediatric infectious disease, physical therapists, audiologists, ophthalmologists and radiologists skilled at reading serial magnetic resonance images as well as ultrasounds,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “At Children’s we have a devoted Zika hotline to triage patient and family concerns. We provide detailed instructions for referring institutions explaining protocols before and after childbirth, and we provide continuing education for health care professionals.”

Of the 36 pregnant women possibly exposed to Zika during pregnancy seen in the program’s first year, 32 lived in the United States and traveled to countries where Zika virus was circulating. Two women had partners who traveled to Zika hot zones. And two moved to the Washington region from places where Zika is endemic. Including the postnatal cases, 89 percent of patients had been bitten by Zika-tainted mosquitoes, while 48 percent of women could have been exposed to Zika via sex with an infected partner.

Twenty percent of the women were exposed before conception; 46 percent were exposed to Zika in the first trimester of pregnancy; 26 percent were exposed in the second trimester; and 8 percent were exposed in the final trimester. In only six of 50 cases (12 percent) did the Zika-infected individual experience symptoms.

Zika infection can be confirmed by detecting viral fragments but only if the test occurs shortly after infection. Twenty-four of the 50 women (nearly 50 percent) arrived for a Zika consultation outside that 12-week testing window. Eleven women (22 percent) had confirmed Zika infection and another 28 percent tested positive for the broader family of flavivirus infections that includes Zika. Another detection method picks up antibodies that the body produces to neutralize Zika virus. For seven women (14 percent), Zika infection was ruled out by either testing method.

“Tragically, four fetuses had severe Zika-related birth defects,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “Due to the gravity of those abnormalities, two pregnancies were not carried to term. The third pregnancy was carried to term, but the infant died immediately after birth. The fourth pregnancy was carried to term, but that infant survived less than one year.”

Catherine Limperopoulous

Brain impairment in newborns with CHD prior to surgery

Catherine Limperopoulous

Children’s National researchers led by Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., demonstrate for the first time that the brains of high-risk infants show signs of functional impairment before they undergo corrective cardiac surgery.

Newborns with congenital heart disease (CHD) requiring open-heart surgery face a higher risk for neurodevelopmental disabilities, yet prior studies had not examined whether functional brain connectivity is altered in these infants before surgery.

Findings from a Children’s National Health System study of this question suggest the presence of brain dysfunction early in the lives of infants with CHD that may be associated with neurodevelopmental impairments years later.

Using a novel imaging technique, Children’s National researchers demonstrated for the first time that the brains of these high-risk infants already show signs of functional impairment even before they undergo corrective open heart surgery. Looking at the newborns’ entire brain topography, the team found intact global organization – efficient and effective small world networks – yet reduced functional connectivity between key brain regions.

“A robust neural network is critical for neurons to travel to their intended destinations and for the body to carry out nerve cells’ instructions. In this study, we found the density of connections among rich club nodes was diminished, and there was reduced connectivity between critical brain hubs,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior author of the study published online Sept. 28, 2017 in NeuroImage: Clinical. “CHD disrupts how oxygenated blood flows throughout the body, including to the brain. Despite disturbed hemodynamics, infants with CHD still are able to efficiently transfer neural information among neighboring areas of the brain and across distant regions.”

The research team led by Josepheen De Asis-Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., compared whole brain functional connectivity in 82 healthy, full-term newborns and 30 newborns with CHD prior to corrective heart surgery. Conventional imaging had detected no brain injuries in either group. The team used resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fcMRI), a imaging technique that characterizes fluctuating blood oxygen level dependent signals from different regions of the brain, to map the effect of CHD on newborns’ developing brains.

The newborns with CHD had lower birth weights and lower APGAR scores (a gauge of how well brand-new babies fare outside the womb) at one and five minutes after birth. Before the scan, the infants were fed, wrapped snugly in warm blankets, securely positioned using vacuum pillows, and their ears were protected with ear plugs and ear muffs.

While the infants with CHD had intact global network topology, a close examination of specific brain regions revealed functional disturbances in a subnetwork of nodes in newborns with cardiac disease. The subcortical regions were involved in most of those affected connections. The team also found weaker functional connectivity between right and left thalamus (the region that processes and transmits sensory information) and between the right thalamus and the left supplementary motor area (the section of the cerebral cortex that helps to control movement). The regions with reduced functional connectivity depicted by rs-fcMRI match up with regional brain anomalies described in imaging studies powered by conventional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging.

“Global network organization is preserved, despite CHD, and small world brain networks in newborns show a remarkable ability to withstand brain injury early in life,” Limperopoulos adds. “These intact, efficient small world networks bode well for targeting early therapy and rehabilitative interventions to lower the newborns’ risk of developing long-term neurological deficits that can contribute to problems with executive function, motor function, learning and social behavior.”

Vittorio Gallo

How the environment helps to shape the brain

Vittorio Gallo

“The strength, duration and timing of environmental experience influences plasticity in brain circuitry, which is made up of communication cables called axons that link neurons throughout the brain and are coated by myelin, a fatty substance that helps nerve impulses speed from place to place,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and senior study author.

Researchers have long known that babies of all kinds need to be exposed to rich, complex environments for optimal brain health and potential. Exposure to new sights, sounds and other sensory experiences appears to be critical for strengthening infants’ developing brains and encouraging smoothly running neural networks. Until recently, little was known about the biological mechanisms behind this phenomenon.

In a review article published online Aug. 22, 2017 in Trends in Neurosciences, Children’s National Health System researchers discuss the role of environmental stimuli on the development of myelin—the fatty insulation that surrounds the extensions that connect cells throughout the nervous system and make up a large part of the brain’s white matter. Positive influences, such as exposure to a large vocabulary and novel objects, can boost the growth of myelin. Conversely, negative influences, such as neglect and social isolation, can harm it, potentially altering the course of brain development.

“The strength, duration and timing of environmental experience influences plasticity in brain circuitry, which is made up of communication cables called axons that link neurons throughout the brain and are coated by myelin, a fatty substance that helps nerve impulses speed from place to place,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and senior study author. “As it responds to environmental stimuli, the brain continually shores up myelin’s integrity. Just as important, damaged myelin can leave gaps in the neural network which can lead to cognitive, motor and behavioral deficits.”

According to Gallo and study lead author Thomas A. Forbes, a pool of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs) specialize in making myelin and do so from childhood into adulthood. The resulting oligodendrocyte cells (OLs) form an important working partnership with axons. From approximately 23 to 37 weeks’ gestation, OLs develop in the fetal brain and they continue to be generated after birth until adolescence.

“This dynamic feedback loop between myelin plasticity and neuronal excitability is crucial,” Forbes says. “It helps to strengthen motor and cognitive function and permits children and adults to learn new skills and to record new memories.”

In utero, genetics plays an outsized role in the initial structure of white matter, which is located in the subcortical region of the brain and takes its white color from myelin, the lipid and protein sheath that electrically insulates nerve cells. Defects in the microstructural organization of white matter are associated with many neurodevelopmental disorders. Once infants are born, environmental experiences also can begin to exert a meaningful role.

“The environment can be viewed as a noninvasive therapeutic approach that can be employed to bolster white matter health, either on its own or working in tandem with pharmacologic therapies,” Gallo adds. “The question is how to design the best environment for infants and children to grow and to achieve the highest cognitive function. An enriched environment not only involves the opportunity to move and participate in physical exercise and physical therapy; it is also an environment where there is novelty, new experiences and continuously active learning. It is equally important to minimize social stressors. It’s all about the balance.”

Among the potential interventions to boost brain power, independent of socioeconomic status:

  • Exposing children to new and different objects with an opportunity for physical activity and interaction with a number of playmates. This type of setting challenges the child to continuously adapt to his or her surroundings in a social, physical and experiential manner. In experimental models, enriched environments supported brain health by increasing the volume and length of myelinated fibers, the volume of myelin sheaths and by boosting total brain volume.
  • Exposure to music helps with cognition, hearing and motor skills for those who play an instrument, tapping multiple areas of the brain to work together collaboratively. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) reveals that professional pianists who began playing as children have improved white matter integrity and plasticity, Gallo and Forbes
  • At its heart, active learning requires interacting with and adapting to the environment. Generating new OLs influences learning new motor skills in the very young as well as the very old. And cognitive training and stimulation shapes and preserves white matter integrity in the aging.
  • DTI studies indicate that four weeks of integrative mind-body training alters myelination and improves white matter efficiency with especially pronounced changes in the area of the brain responsible for self-regulation, impulse control and emotion.
  • Voluntary exercise in experimental models is associated with OPCs differentiating into mature OLs. Imaging studies show a positive relationship between physical fitness, white matter health and the brain networks involved in memory.

Conversely, such negative influences as premature birth, poor nutrition, disease, neglect and social isolation can degrade myelin integrity, compromising the person’s ability to carry out basic motor skills and cognitive function. Usually, the pool of OPCs expands as the fetus is about to be born. But brain injury, lack of oxygen and restricted blood supply can delay maturation of certain brain cells and can cause abnormalities in white matter that diminish the brain’s capacity to synthesize myelin. Additional white matter insults can be caused by use of anesthesia and stress, among other variables.

The environmental influence has the potential to be “the Archimedes’ Lever to appropriating WM development among a limited range of only partially efficacious treatment options,” the authors conclude.

Exchanging ideas

Exchanging ideas, best practices in China

Exchanging ideas

Physicians from the Children’s National delegation attended the Shanghai Pediatric Innovation Forum in June 2017. Pictured (left to right): Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., Michael Mintz, M.D., Robert Keating, M.D., Lawrence Jung, M.D., Peter Kim, M.D., and Sarah Birch, D.N.P., A.P.R.N.

In late June, a delegation of international pediatric experts from Children’s National Health System journeyed across the world to learn about the practice of pediatric medicine in China and to exchange ideas with colleagues there. Leaders from several of Children’s key specialties joined the delegation, including:

The group, led by Drs. Keating and Gaillard, traveled to China with Children’s Outreach Coordinator John Walsh, whose longtime connections and close familiarity with the pediatric medical community in Hangzhou and Shanghai made the collaboration possible. The team toured several of the largest children’s hospitals in country, including The Children’s Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine in Hangzhou and Shanghai Children’s Medical Center, connecting with pediatric specialists there.

“Some of the most important parts of this trip were the opportunities to exchange ideas and solidify long term relationships that will allow us to work closely with our peers in China as they develop their pediatric programs. The potential is tremendous for unique collaborations between our teams and theirs for research and the development of clinical care improvements for children,” said Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Health, who joined the delegation in Beijing.

A keynote lecture and more at the 3rd China International Forum on Pediatric Development

The delegation also was honored with an invitation to participate in the 3rd China International Forum on Pediatric Development. The forum is one of the largest pediatric focused meetings in the country and is led by all the major children’s hospitals in China, including those in Beijing and Shanghai. Close to 4,000 pediatricians attended the meeting, and presenters included esteemed international leaders in pediatric medicine from around the world.

Dr. Packer delivered one of the opening keynote lectures, entitled, “Translation of molecular advances into care: the challenge ahead for children’s hospitals.” His talk focused on the tremendous promise and significant challenges posed by the latest scientific advances, through the lens of a neurologist.

“Across the world, we are looking at the same challenges: How can we use scientific advances to find better outcomes? How can we financially support the new types of interventions made possible by these molecular biologics insights when they can cost millions of dollars for one patient?”

“There’s palpable excitement that these new developments will give us potential therapies we never dreamed about before, ways to reverse what we initially thought was irreversible brain damage, ways to prevent severe illnesses including brain tumors, but the issue is how to turn this promise into reality. That’s a worldwide issue, not simply a single country’s issue,” he continued.

He also flagged mental health and behavioral health as a crucial, universal challenge in need of addressing on both sides of the Pacific.

The Children’s National delegation, including Drs. DeBiasi, Song, Keating, Gaillard and Packer were also honored to share their insight in a series of specialty-specific breakout sessions at the Forum.

Overall, the long journey opened a dialogue between Children’s National and pediatric care providers in China, paving the way for future discussion about how to learn from each other and collaborate to enhance all institutions involved.

LCModel output from 32 GA baby

Understanding the long-term consequences of prematurity

LCModel output from 32 GA baby

Children’s National Health System researchers processed H1-MRS data using LCModel software to calculate absolute metabolite concentrations for N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA), choline (Cho) and creatine (Cr). Preterm infants had significantly lower cerebellar NAA (p=<0.025) and higher Cho (p=<0.001) when compared with healthy term-equivalent infants. The area of the brain within the red box is the cerebellum, the region of interest for this study.

Premature birth, a condition that affects approximately 10 percent of births in the United States, often is accompanied by health problems ranging from difficulties breathing and eating to long-term neurocognitive delays and disabilities. However, the reasons for these problems have been unclear.

In a study published online Aug. 15, 2017 in Scientific Reports, a team of Children’s National Health System clinician-researchers reports that prematurity is associated with altered metabolite profiles in the infants’ cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls coordination and balance. Pre-term infants in the study had significantly lower levels of a chemical marker of nerve cell integrity and significantly higher concentrations of a chemical marker of cellular membrane turnover.

“These data suggest that interrupting the developing fetal brain’s usual growth plan during gestation – which can occur through early birth, infection or experiencing brain damage – might trigger a compensatory mechanism. The infant’s brain tries to make up for lost time or heal injured tissue by producing a certain type of cells more quickly than it normally would,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National and senior study author. “The more sensitive imaging technique that we used also revealed nerve cell damage from brain injuries extends beyond the site of injury, a finding that contrasts with what is found through conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).”

It has long been clear that prematurity – birth before 37 weeks gestation – is accompanied by a number of immediate and long-term complications, from potential problems breathing and feeding at birth to impairments in hearing and sight that can last throughout an individual’s life.

Neurocognitive developmental delays often accompany pre-term birth, many of which can have long-lasting consequences. Studies have shown that children born prematurely are more likely to struggle in school, have documented learning disabilities and experience significant delays in developing gross and fine motor skills compared with children born at full-term.

Several studies have investigated the root cause of these issues in the cerebrum, the structure that takes up the majority of the brain and is responsible for functions including learning and memory, language and communication, sensory processing and movement. However, the cerebellum – a part of the brain that plays an important role in motor control – has not received as much research attention.

In the new study, Limperopoulos and colleagues used a specialized MRI technique that allowed them to parse out differences in which molecules are present in the cerebellum of full-term infants compared with premature infants. Their findings show a variety of differences that could offer clues to explain developmental differences between these two populations – and potentially identify ways to intervene to improve outcomes.

The researchers recruited 59 premature infants, born at 32 or fewer weeks’ gestation, and 61 healthy, full-term infants. Each baby received a special type of MRI known as proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or H1-MRS, that measures the concentrations of particular molecules in the brain. The full-term infants had these MRIs shortly after birth; the pre-term infants had them at 39 to 41 weeks gestational age, or around the time that they would have been born had the pregnancy continued to term.

Looking specifically at the cerebellum, the researchers found that the pre-term infants overall had significantly lower concentrations of N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA), a marker of the integrity of nerve cells. They also had significantly higher concentrations of choline, a marker of cell membrane integrity and membrane turnover.

Concentrations of creatine, a marker of stores of cellular energy, were about the same overall between the two groups. However, the researchers found that brain injuries, which affected 35 of the pre-term infants but none of the full-term infants, were associated with significantly lower concentrations of NAA, choline and creatine. Having a neonatal infection, which affected 21 of the pre-term infants but none of the full-term ones, was associated with lower NAA and creatine.

The findings could offer insight into exactly what’s happening in the brain when infants are born pre-term and when these vulnerable babies develop infections or their brains become injured – conditions that convey dramatically higher risks for babies born too early, Limperopoulos says. The differences between the full-term babies and the pre-term ones reflect disturbances these cells are experiencing at a biochemical level, she explains.

Limperopoulos and colleagues note that more research will be necessary to connect these findings to what is already known about developmental problems in pre-term infants. Eventually, she says, scientists might be able to use this knowledge to develop treatments that might be able to change the course of brain development in babies born too early, getting them on track with infants born at term.

“We know that the bodies of pre-term infants demonstrate a remarkable ability to catch up with peers who were born at full-term, in terms of weight and height. Our challenge is to ensure that preemies’ brains also have an opportunity to develop as normally as possible to ensure optimal long-term outcomes,” Limperopoulos says.

ECIN Briefing

Building resilient kids through healthy adults

ECIN Briefing

Mr. Lane, Dr. Hodgkinson, Dr. Biel, and Dr. Beers provided a briefing at the Washington, D.C., City Council in July about the Early Childhood Innovation Network, which takes evidence-based national models for early childhood mental health interventions and adds components designed to address Washington, D.C.’s unique needs.

Exposures to adverse childhood experiences are the single biggest predictor of outcomes for physical health, mental health, social functioning and academic achievement in children and into adulthood. There is evidence that negative experiences – such as poverty, housing insecurity, having a parent with untreated mental illness or actively engaged in substance abuse – have biological impacts on a child’s brain size and function.

Conversely, during the critical first few years of life, safe, stable and nurturing relationships from adult caregivers build healthy brains, even in the midst of adversity. Additionally, the ability of a child’s brain to absorb experience and to change means that early intervention to reduce exposure to or impact of these negative events can be particularly effective for young children. In a briefing for the Washington, D.C., City Council, leaders from the Early Childhood Innovation Network (ECIN) shared these facts and outlined how ECIN’s local collaborative of health, education and social service providers promotes resilient families and children through interventions designed to work best for each family.

“We are taking evidence-based practices from other places, and then personalizing them to our communities in D.C.,” says Lee Beers, M.D., co-director of the ECIN and the medical director for Municipal and Regional Affairs within the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children’s National Health System. “We spent a lot of time seeking input and advice from primary care doctors, social services providers and community leaders, to make sure that we bring programs to clinics like the Children’s Health Center at Anacostia that are useful, sustainable and measurable for the children and families who live there.”

The network’s other co-director, Matthew G. Biel, M.D., chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital continues, “We know that the best way to help these kids is by addressing challenges across generations – we can’t reach children without first helping the adults. In addition to evaluating for risk factors, we also need to screen for protective factors – how families can best buffer these young children from the toxic effects of adverse childhood experiences. Then, in a non-confrontational setting such as a routine primary care visit, we can provide them with additional tools to enhance those protective factors.”

A working example: HealthySteps D.C.

Drs. Beers and Biel cited the implementation of the HealthySteps program, an evidence-based intervention with a national network of over 100 pediatric and family practice sites across 15 states, locally in D.C. as one example of ECIN’s approach. The program, now underway at the Children’s Health Center at Anacostia and recently launched at the Children’s Health Center at THEARC, embeds specially trained HealthySteps specialists into the primary care team to provide parents and professionals with skills and tools that nurture healthy development in young children.

Nationwide, HealthySteps has been shown to have a significant impact on children, families and practices at relatively low cost, providing services within the primary care setting such as:

  • Early identification and access to effective interventions for development delays
  • Coaching on age-appropriate parent-child interactions and child social-emotional development
  • Support for parental depression, domestic violence, substance abuse, food, housing and other social determinants
  • Creating better integration between pediatric primary care and early childhood systems

ECIN’s D.C.-based version takes this successful national model and adds additional D.C. needs-based specific activities:

  • Each family is assigned a Family Champion who identifies and addresses specific resource needs, including mental health services, parent training, or support groups and basic needs such as insurance, housing or employment
  • HealthySteps specialists offer brief interventions within the primary care setting to address pressing needs such as maternal depression, grief and loss and child behavior management
  • HealthySteps specialists deliver specialized training to providers on child behavioral and developmental health

“Even in the short time since we implemented HealthySteps, we’re seeing significant impact around care coordination and case management for the families at our Children’s Health Center at Anacostia,” says Stacy Hodgkinson, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Children’s National who serves as a HealthySteps specialist at the Children’s Health Center at Anacostia.

HealthySteps D.C. is the first of several initiatives under development by the Early Childhood Innovation Network. The group is also working together with additional community partners such as Educare, Martha’s Table, LIFT, and MedStar Washington Hospital Center to explore, implement and evaluate the effectiveness of programs in areas such as building social-emotional skills in young children, financial literacy and mental health support for mothers-to-be.

Community connections and coordination

“So many children with needs do not get connected to services, and the Early Childhood Innovation Network addresses this challenge. Even better, there has been a genuineness from ECIN to engaging community and earning buy-in for programs from the very beginning. They’ve made community leaders and parents an integral part of the network’s program design and implementation,” adds Ambrose Lane, Jr., chair and founder of the Health Alliance Network and chairman at the D.C. Department of Health Chronic Disease Citywide Collaborative.

Little girl eating

Daily tasks harder for girls with ASD

Little girl eating

Researchers found that girls with autism struggle with day-to-day functioning and independence skills more than boys.

Researchers at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National found something surprising in their recent study of executive function and adaptive skills. Girls, who often score well on direct assessments of communication skills, struggle more than boys with crucial tasks such as making a plan, getting organized and following through, as well as basic daily tasks like getting up and getting dressed, or making small talk.

“When parents were asked to rate a child’s day-to-day functioning, it turns out that girls were struggling more with these independence skills. This was surprising because in general, girls with ASD have better social and communication skills during direct assessments. The natural assumption would be that those communication and social skills would assist them to function more effectively in the world, but we found that this isn’t always the case,” says Allison Ratto, Ph.D., a psychologist in the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and one of the study’s authors. “Our goal was to look at real world skills, not just the diagnostic behaviors we use clinically to diagnose ASD, to understand how people are actually doing in their day to day lives.”

Conducted by a team within the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, the National Institute of Mental Health and The George Washington University, the study is the largest to date examining executive function and adaptive skills in women and girls with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The study collected parent-reported data from several rating scales of executive function and adaptive behavior, including the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, Parent Form (BRIEF) and the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-II (VABS-II). The group included 79 females and 158 males meeting clinical criteria for autism spectrum disorders, ranging in ages from 7 to 18 years old. The groups were matched for intelligence, age and level of autism and ADHD symptoms.

Little is known about autism in females

The findings are part of a growing body of research focused on how ASD may affect females differently than males. The ratio of girls to boys with autism is approximately one to three. As a result of the larger numbers of males, existing data is predominantly focused on traits and challenges in that population. This is especially true in clinical trials, where enrollment is overwhelmingly male.

“Our understanding of autism is overwhelmingly based on males, similar to the situation faced by the medical community once confronted with heart disease research being predominantly male,” notes Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and the study’s senior author. “We know how to identify signs, symptoms and treatments for autism in males, but we know very little about unique aspects of it in females.”

The historical lack of specific discovery around how autism presents in females may contribute to misdiagnosis or delay, and prevent implementation of necessary interventions. Such delays can have a major impact on outcomes, as recent research has demonstrated the critical importance of early diagnosis and intervention in ASD.

“Our focus in caring for children with autism is equipping all of them with strategies and skills to allow them to function and succeed in day-to-day living,” Dr. Kenworthy continues. “This study highlights that some common assumptions about the severity of challenges faced by girls with ASD may be wrong, and we may need to spend more time building the adaptive and executive function skills of these females if we want to help them thrive.”

“Enhancing our understanding of how biological differences change the presentation of autism in the long term is crucial to giving every person with ASD the tools they need to succeed in life,” she concludes.

Surprising consensus on pediatric anti-epilepsy meds

A study that includes William D. Gaillard, M.D., among its authors indicates that U.S. doctors appear to have reached an unexpected consensus about which anti-seizure medicine to prescribe to their pediatric patients.

The number of available anti-seizure medications has exploded in the past two decades, going from just a handful of medicines available in the 1990s to more than 20 now. Once the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves each new medicine based on trials in adults, it’s available for clinicians to prescribe off-label to all age groups. However, says William D. Gaillard, M.D., division chief of Child Neurology and Epilepsy, Neurophysiology and Critical Care Neurology at Children’s National Health System, trials that lead to FDA approval for adults do not provide any information about which medications are best for children.

“With so many medications and so little data,” Dr. Gaillard says, “one might think doctors would choose a wider variety of medicines when they prescribe to children with epilepsy.”

However, the results from a recent study that included Dr. Gaillard and colleagues, published online in Pediatric Neurology on June 27, 2017, show otherwise. The study indicates that doctors in the United States appear to have reached an unexpected consensus about which medication to prescribe for their pediatric patients.

The study is part of a broader effort to collect data on the youngest epilepsy patients – those younger than 3 years old, the age at which epilepsy most often becomes evident. As part of this endeavor, researchers from 17 U.S. pediatric epilepsy centers enrolled in the study 495 children younger than 36 months old who had been newly diagnosed with non-syndromic epilepsy (a condition not linked to any of the commonly recognized genetic epilepsy syndromes).

The researchers mined these patients’ electronic medical records for information about their demographics, disease and treatments. About half of the study participants were younger than 1 year old when they were diagnosed with epilepsy. About half had disease marked by focal features, meaning that their epilepsy appeared to originate from a particular place in the brain. Nearly all were treated with a single medication, as opposed to a cocktail of multiple medicines.

William Gaillard

“This study identifies current practices, but whether those practices are correct is a separate question,” explains Dr. Gaillard. “Just because a medication is used commonly doesn’t mean it is the best medication we should be using.”

Of those treated with a single medication, nearly all were treated with one of five medicines: Levetiracetam, oxcarbazepine, phenobarbital, topiramate and zonisamide. However, the data showed a clear prescribing preference. About 63 percent of the patients were prescribed levetiracetam as a first choice. By contrast, oxcarbazepine and phenobarbital, the next most frequently prescribed medicines, were taken by patients as a first choice by a mere 14 percent and 13 percent respectively.

Even more striking, of the children who were not prescribed levetiracetam initially but required a second medication due to inadequate efficacy or unacceptable side effects, 62 percent also received this medication. That made levetiracetam the first or second choice for about 74 percent of all the children in the study, despite the availability of more than 20 anti-seizure medications.

It’s not clear why levetiracetam is such a frequent choice in the United States, says Dr. Gaillard. However, in its favor, the drug is available in a liquid formulation, causes no ill effects medically and can be started intravenously if necessary. Studies have shown that it appears to be effective in controlling seizures in about 40 percent of infants.

Yet, levetiracetam’s market dominance appears to be a North American phenomenon, the study authors write. A recent international survey that Dr. Gaillard also participated in suggests that outside of this continent, carbazepine and oxcarbazepine were the most frequently prescribed medications to treat focal seizures.

What’s really necessary, Dr. Gaillard says, is real data on efficacy for each of the medications commonly prescribed to pediatric epilepsy patients – a marked vacuum in research that prevents doctors from using evidence-based reasoning when making medication choices.

“This study identifies current practices, but whether those practices are correct is a separate question,” he explains. “Just because a medication is used commonly doesn’t mean it is the best medication we should be using.”

To answer that question, he says, researchers will need to perform a head-to-head clinical trial comparing the top available epilepsy medications in children. This study sets the stage for such a trial by identifying which medications should be included.

“Uncontrolled pediatric epilepsy can have serious consequences, from potential problems in development to a higher risk of death,” Dr. Gaillard says. “You want to use the optimal medicine to treat the disease.”