doctors operating

U.S. DoD awards $2M for study to protect neurological function after cardiac surgery

doctors operating

A collaboration between clinical and basic science researchers including Drs. Ishibashi, Hashimoto-Torii, Jonas, and Deutsch, seeks to to understand how caspase enzyme activation plays a role in the development of fine and gross motor skills in children who underwent cardiac surgery for CHD repair.

The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded $2 million to Children’s National Hospital to study how a family of protease enzymes known as caspases may contribute to brain cell degeneration when activated by prolonged anesthesia and cardiopulmonary bypass during cardiac surgery for congenital heart disease.

This U.S. Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity Award, Anesthesia Neurotoxicity in Congenital Heart Disease, is led by principal investigator Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., with both clinical and basic science co-investigators including Kazue Hashimoto-Torii, Ph.D., (Neuroscience), Richard Jonas, M.D., (Cardiovascular Surgery) and Nina Deutsch, M.D., (Anesthesiology).

While the specific cellular and molecular mechanisms of how anesthesia and cardiac surgery impact cortical development are poorly understood, both seem to impact brain growth and development in young children. The most common neurologic deficit seen in children after CHD surgical repair is the impairment of fine and gross motor skills.

Both anesthetic agents and inflammation like that seen as a result of cardiopulmonary bypass have also been shown to contribute to the activation of a specific group of enzymes that play an essential role in the routine (programmed) death of cells: caspases. However, recent pre-clinical research shows that these enzymes may also contribute to other alterations to cells beyond cell death, including making changes to other cell structures. In pre-clinical models, these changes cause impairments to fine and gross motor skills – the same neurological deficits seen in children with CHD who have undergone procedures requiring prolonged anesthesia and cardiopulmonary bypass.

The research team hypothesizes that caspases are extensively activated as a result of cardiac surgery and while that activation is rarely causing reduced numbers of neurons, the changes that caspase enzymes trigger in neurons are contributing to neurological deficits seen in children with CHD after surgery.

While the study focuses specifically on the impacts of cardiac surgery for correction of a heart defect, the findings could have major implications for any pediatric surgical procedure requiring prolonged anesthesia and/or cardiopulmonary bypass.

Neurology infographic

2020 at a glance: Neurology and Neurosurgery at Children’s National

 

The Children’s National Division of Neurology and Neurosurgery is consistently recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top neurology programs in the nation and is currently #3 in the nation.

US News Badges

Children’s National ranked a top 10 children’s hospital and No. 1 in newborn care nationally by U.S. News

US News Badges

Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., was ranked No. 7 nationally in the U.S. News & World Report 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals annual rankings. This marks the fourth straight year Children’s National has made the list, which ranks the top 10 children’s hospitals nationwide.

In addition, its neonatology program, which provides newborn intensive care, ranked No.1 among all children’s hospitals for the fourth year in a row.

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

“Our number one goal is to provide the best care possible to children. Being recognized by U.S. News as one of the best hospitals reflects the strength that comes from putting children and their families first, and we are truly honored,” says Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National Hospital.

“This year, the news is especially meaningful, because our teams — like those at hospitals across the country — faced enormous challenges and worked heroically through a global pandemic to deliver excellent care.”

“Even in the midst of a pandemic, children have healthcare needs ranging from routine vaccinations to life-saving surgery and chemotherapy,” said Ben Harder, managing editor and chief of Health Analysis at U.S. News. “The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings are designed to help parents find quality medical care for a sick child and inform families’ conversations with pediatricians.”

The annual rankings are the most comprehensive source of quality-related information on U.S. pediatric hospitals. The rankings recognize the nation’s top 50 pediatric hospitals based on a scoring system developed by U.S. News. The top 10 scorers are awarded a distinction called the Honor Roll.

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

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

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

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

R01 grant funds white matter protection study for congenital heart disease

Nobuyuki Ishibashi

Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., is the principal investigator on a $3.2 million NIH R01 to study white matter growth and repair in utero for fetal brains affected by congenital heart disease.

Many of the neurological deficits seen in children with congenital heart disease (CHD) are related to abnormal white matter development early in life caused by reduced oxygen supply to the brain while in utero. Children with immature white matter at birth also commonly sustain additional white matter injuries following cardiac surgery.

The NIH recently awarded a prestigious R01 grant totaling more than $3.2 million to a collaborative project led by the Center for Neuroscience Research, the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation and the Children’s National Heart Institute at Children’s National Hospital as well as MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

The research, titled “White matter protection in the fetus with congenital heart disease,” looks specifically at whether providing a supplemental amount of the naturally occurring tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) for pregnant women could rescue white matter development of fetuses with congenital heart disease whose brains aren’t receiving enough oxygen – or suffering from hypoxic-ischemic events.

Previous preclinical studies have shown that this lack of oxygen depletes the brain’s natural BH4 level, and the researchers hypothesize that BH4 levels play a critical role in the growth and development of white matter in the fetal brain by triggering key cellular/molecular processes. Specifically, the study will focus on three aims:

  1. Establish in a preclinical model the optimal protective regiment for women pregnant with a fetus who has CHD to receive BH4.
  2. Determine the appropriate approach to deliver BH4 to this population
  3. Leverage genetic tools and biochemical techniques in the laboratory to better understand where and how BH4 levels play a role in the growth (or lack thereof) of oligodendrocytes—the primary cells of white matter.

This laboratory-based work is the first step to determining if the neurodevelopment of babies born with CHD can be preserved or recovered by addressing key brain development that occurs before the baby is even born. Findings related to congenital heart disease may also translate to other populations where white matter development is affected by hypoxia-ischemia, including premature infants.

The project is led by principal investigator Nobuyuki Ishibashi, M.D., with co-investigators Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Joseph Scafidi, D.O., and Mary Donofrio, M.D. as well as colleagues at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Vittorio Gallo and Mark Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute releases annual report

Vittorio Gallo and Marc Batshaw

Children’s National Research Institute directors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., and Mark Batshaw, M.D.

The Children’s National Research Institute recently released its 2019-2020 academic annual report, titled 150 Years Stronger Through Discovery and Care to mark the hospital’s 150th birthday. Not only does the annual report give an overview of the institute’s research and education efforts, but it also gives a peek in to how the institute has mobilized to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our inaugural research program in 1947 began with a budget of less than $10,000 for the study of polio — a pressing health problem for Washington’s children at the time and a pandemic that many of us remember from our own childhoods,” says Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., chief research officer at Children’s National Hospital and scientific director at Children’s National Research Institute. “Today, our research portfolio has grown to more than $75 million, and our 314 research faculty and their staff are dedicated to finding answers to many of the health challenges in childhood.”

Highlights from the Children’s National Research Institute annual report

  • In 2018, Children’s National began construction of its new Research & Innovation Campus (CNRIC) on 12 acres of land transferred by the U.S. Army as part of the decommissioning of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus. In 2020, construction on the CNRIC will be complete, and in 2012, the Children’s National Research Institute will begin to transition to the campus.
  • In late 2019, a team of scientists led by Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect samples from 60 individuals that will form the basis of a new reference genome data set. The researchers hope their project will generate better reference genome data for diverse populations, starting with those of Central African descent.
  • A gift of $5.7 million received by the Center for Translational Research’s director, Lisa Guay-Woodford, M.D., will reinforce close collaboration between research and clinical care to improve the care and treatment of children with polycystic kidney disease and other inherited renal disorders.
  • The Center for Neuroscience Research’s integration into the infrastructure of Children’s National Hospital has created a unique set of opportunities for scientists and clinicians to work together on pressing problems in children’s health.
  • Children’s National and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are tackling pediatric research across three main areas of mutual interest: primary immune deficiencies, food allergies and post-Lyme disease syndrome. Their shared goal is to conduct clinical and translational research that improves what we know about those conditions and how we care for children who have them.
  • An immunotherapy trial has allowed a little boy to be a kid again. In the two years since he received cellular immunotherapy, Matthew has shown no signs of a returning tumor — the longest span of time he’s been tumor-free since age 3.
  • In the past 6 years, the 104 device projects that came through the National Capital Consortium for Pediatric Device Innovation accelerator program raised $148,680,256 in follow-on funding.
  • Even though he’s watched more than 500 aspiring physicians pass through the Children’s National pediatric residency program, program director Dewesh Agrawal, M.D., still gets teary at every graduation.

Understanding and treating the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

In a short period of time, Children’s National Research Institute has mobilized its scientists to address COVID-19, focusing on understanding the virus and advancing solutions to ameliorate the impact today and for future generations. Children’s National Research Institute Director Mark Batshaw, M.D., highlighted some of these efforts in the annual report:

  • Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research, is looking at whether or not the microbiome of bacteria in the human nasal tract acts as a defensive shield against COVID-19.
  • Catherine Bollard, M.D., MBChB, director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, and her team are seeing if they can “train” T cells to attack the invading coronavirus.
  • Sarah Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., an investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research and the Fetal Medicine Institute, is studying the effects of, and possible interventions for, coronavirus on the developing brain.

You can view the entire Children’s National Research Institute academic annual report online.

glial cells

Dr. Nathan A. Smith receives $600,000 DOD ARO grant to study the role of glial cells in neural excitability and cognition

glial cells

Microglia are the resident immune cells of the central nervous system that have highly dynamic processes that continuously survey the brain’s microenvironment, making contact with both neurons and astrocytes.

In his pursuit to understand the function of neural circuits within the brain, Nathan A. Smith, M.S., Ph.D., principal investigator at Children’s National Hospital, is examining how specialized glial cells, known as astrocytes and microglia, work together to influence neural networks and potentially enhance neuro-cognition.

Dr. Smith has just secured a new $600,000 grant from the Department of Defense Army Research Laboratory to pursue cutting-edge experimental approaches to examine the role of astrocytes in Ca2+-dependent microglia modulation of synaptic activity. This project will enhance our understanding of neuronal excitability and cognition, and define a new role for microglia in these processes.

“Glia cells play an important role in modulating synaptic function via Ca2+-dependent mechanisms,” says Dr. Smith. “It’s time for these cells to receive recognition as active participants, rather than passive contributors, in fundamental neural processes.”

Dr. Smith and his laboratory at Children’s National Research Institute are using novel experimental models to study the dynamics underlying Ca2+-mediated microglia process extension and retraction to further our understanding of how microglia, astrocytes and neurons interact in the healthy brain.

“Completion of the proposed studies has the potential to redefine the role(s) of microglia in higher brain functions and highlight the significant contribution of these cells,” Dr. Smith says. “Most importantly, elucidating the mechanisms that underlie glial cell modulation of neural circuits will not only further our understanding of normal brain function but also open new avenues to developing more accurate computational models of neural circuits.”

Dr. Nathan Smith

Dr. Smith and his laboratory at Children’s National Research Institute are using novel experimental models to study the dynamics underlying Ca2+-mediated microglia process extension and retraction to further our understanding of how microglia, astrocytes and neurons interact in the healthy brain.

Microglia are the resident immune cells of the central nervous system that have highly dynamic processes that continuously survey the brain’s microenvironment, making contact with both neurons and astrocytes. However, because of our inability to directly monitor Ca2+ activity in microglia, very little is known about the intracellular Ca2+ dynamics in resting microglia and their role in surveillance and modulation of synaptic activity.

Dr. Smith’s research team and his use of cutting-edge technology are a perfect match with the Army’s new modernization priorities. Dr. Smith’s research program and the new Army’s initiatives will greatly benefit from each other and ultimately contribute to a better understanding of the human brain.

“This research will help address a major gap in our understanding of the roles that glial cells play in regulating the computations of the nervous system through their interactions with neurons, which could also inspire a new class of artificial neural network architectures,” said Dr. Frederick Gregory, program manager, Army Research Office, an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory.

The grant will begin on July 1, 2020, and will last over three years. Dr. Smith’s research is also supported by other grants, including awards from the NIH and the National Science Foundation.

“As Dr. Smith’s mentor, the ultimate joy for a mentor is to see his mentees follow their dreams and be recognized for their accomplishments,” said Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National Hospital. “I couldn’t be prouder of Nathan, and I am fully confident that this new research grant will help him continue to grow an exceptional research program.”

coronavirus

Study finds children can become seriously ill with COVID-19

coronavirus

Despite early reports suggesting COVID-19 does not seriously impact children, a new study shows that children who contract COVID-19 can become very ill.

In contrast to the prevailing view that the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 does not seriously impact children, a new study finds that children who contract the virus can become very ill—many of them critically so, according to physician researchers at Children’s National Hospital. Their results, published in the Journal of Pediatrics and among the first reports from a U.S. institution caring for children and young adults, shows differences in the characteristics of children who recovered at home, were hospitalized, or who required life support measures. These findings highlight the spectrum of illness in children, and could help doctors and parents better predict which pediatric patients are more likely to become severely ill as a consequence of the virus.

In late 2019, researchers identified a new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. As the disease spread around the world, the vast majority of reports suggested that elderly patients bear the vast majority of the disease burden and that children are at less risk for either infection or severe disease. However, study leader Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s National, states that she and her colleagues began noticing an influx of children coming to the hospital for evaluation of a range of symptoms starting in mid-March 2020, who were tested and determined to be infected with COVID-19. One quarter of these children required hospitalization or life support.

“It was very apparent to us within the first several weeks of the epidemic that this was a very different situation than our colleagues on the West Coast of the US had described as their experience just weeks before,” DeBiasi says. “Right away, we knew that it was important for us to not only care for these sick children, but to examine the factors causing severe disease, and warn others who provide medical care to children.”

To better understand this phenomenon, she and her colleagues examined the medical records of symptomatic children and young adults who sought treatment at Children’s National for COVID-19 between March 15 and April 30, 2020. Each of these 177 children tested positive using a rapid assay to detect SARS-CoV-2 performed at the hospital. The researchers gathered data on each patient, including demographic details such as age and sex; their symptoms; whether they had any underlying medical conditions; and whether these patients were non-hospitalized, hospitalized, or required critical care.

The results of their analysis show that there was about an even split of male and female patients who tested positive for COVID-19 at Children’s National during this time period. About 25% of these patients required hospitalization. Of those hospitalized, about 75% weren’t considered critically ill and about 25% required life support measures. These included supplemental oxygen delivered by intubation and mechanical ventilation, BiPAP, or high-flow nasal cannula – all treatments that support breathing – as well as other support measures such as dialysis, blood pressure support and medications to treat infection as well as inflammation.

Although patients who were hospitalized spanned the entire age range, more than half of them were either under a year old or more than 15 years old. The children and young adults over 15 years of age, Dr. DeBiasi explains, were more likely to require critical care.

About 39% of all COVID-19 patients had underlying medical conditions, including asthma, which has been highlighted as a risk factor for worse outcomes with this infection. However, DeBiasi says, although underlying conditions were more common as a whole in hospitalized patients – present in about two thirds of hospitalized and 80% of critically ill – asthma didn’t increase the risk of hospitalization or critical illness. On the other hand, children with underlying neurological conditions, such as cerebral palsy, microcephaly, or global developmental delay, as well as those with underlying cardiac, hematologic, or oncologic conditions were significantly more likely to require hospitalization.

In addition, although early reports of COVID-19 suggested that fever and respiratory symptoms are hallmarks of this infection, Dr. DeBiasi and her colleagues found that fewer than half of patients had both concurrently. Those with mild, upper respiratory symptoms, such as runny nose, congestion, and cough were less likely to end up hospitalized than those with more severe respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath. The frequency of other symptoms including diarrhea, chest pain and loss of sense of smell or taste was similar among hospitalized and non-hospitalized patients.

Dr. DeBiasi notes that although other East Coast hospitals are anecdotally reporting similar upticks in pediatric COVID-19 patients who become seriously ill, it’s currently unclear what factors might account for differences from the less frequent and milder pediatric illness on the West Coast. Some factors might include a higher East Coast population density, differences between the genetic, racial and ethnic makeup of the two populations, or differences between the viral strains circulating in both regions (an Asian strain on the West Coast, and a European strain on the East Coast).

Regardless, she says, the good news is that the more researchers learn about this viral illness, the better prepared parents, medical personnel and hospitals will be to deal with this ongoing threat.

Other researchers from Children’s National who participated in this study include Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., M.Sc.Meghan Delaney, D.O., M.P.H.Michael Bell, M.D. Karen Smith, M.D.Jay Pershad, M.D., Emily Ansusinha, Andrea Hahn, M.D., M.S., Rana Hamdy, M.D., M.P.H., MSCE, Nada Harik, M.D.Benjamin Hanisch, M.D.Barbara Jantausch, M.D.Adeline Koay, MBBS, MS.c., Robin Steinhorn, Kurt Newman, M.D. and David Wessel, M.D.

girl talking to doctor

Clinicians and transgender autistic youth create support model

girl talking to doctor

Young people with the co-occurrence of autism and gender diversity and their families partner with clinical researchers to understand care needs and how care providers can meet those needs.

The first ever set of specific recommendations to support transgender autistic young people was co-created by these youth and their families working hand-in-hand with clinical experts. The resulting model offers clinicians a set of concrete ways to provide this unique population the support they need.

The recommendations, A Clinical Program for Transgender and Gender-Diverse Neurodiverse/Autistic Adolescents Developed through Community-Based Participatory Design, were published by the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology on May 4, 2020.

“The idea of patients helping to co-design their own care isn’t new, but including the perspectives of autistic youth in their own care is quite new,” says John Strang, Psy.D., who directs the Gender and Autism Program within the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Hospital.

He continues, “And for the many youth who are both transgender and autistic, including their voices and perspectives in their clinical care is critical. Without their input, there is a great risk for misunderstanding their needs – and for marginalization.”

“This was an important process in which to participate, and will hopefully help those — autistic people, trans people, and autistic trans people alike — who often only see themselves represented by cisgender, neurotypical researchers and providers. It is a relief to be a part of creating something like this,” adds Marisa Alexa McCool, a co-researcher who is an autistic transgender woman.

The new publication builds on previously published broad clinical guidelines for providers, now integrating the perspectives of autistic transgender individuals themselves. The program includes specific approaches for supporting young people in their diverse needs, and identifies three key components central to this care:

  1. Helping autistic, gender-diverse young people build community together, which they need and often want, in contrast to clichés about lack of desire for social contact in autism. Many autistic transgender young people prior to entering clinical care have never met another person who is transgender and autistic. The connections that they built with one another through this new clinical care model were critical in helping them develop a positive sense of identity and to know that they are not alone in this world.
  2. Introducing the youth to a broad spectrum of gender diverse and/or neurodiverse role models helps make possibilities for their future more concrete, and builds a sense of hopefulness and pride. Abstract concepts such as gender or future gender can be particularly challenging for autistic youth. The new care model addresses this by providing these youth opportunities to meet and interact with a range of living role models who represent various gender identities as well as neurodiversity experiences. “Being able to see and hear about the diverse journeys of adults who have already navigated gender and/or autism-related diversity has been helpful in making the various options more tangible for gender diverse autistic youth,” says Dr. Strang. “The chance to meet role models with different gender-related experiences – transgender, cisgender, exploring – has helped autistic gender diverse youth to better figure out what is most true for them and what they need from us.”
  3. Supporting the gender expression needs of autistic transgender youth through gender style coaching. Because of autism-related sensory sensitivities and problems with planning and social understanding, autistic transgender young people often have difficulty achieving their desired gender transition. Gender-style coaching can help autistic youth reach their gender-related goals in ways that accommodate and support the young person’s autism-related challenges.

The perspectives included in the new clinical program were from a range of ages and backgrounds, as well as across multiple points in time to make sure that as youths’ own views evolved, their evolving needs were captured as well.

The authors created a specific clinical guide to complement the publication, which is available on the Children’s National website.

“We’re so happy to have been able to partner with self-advocates from the autistic transgender and gender diverse communities, youth who are living this experience, and their families, to co-create a community-driven model that can be used for kids seeking guidance and support,” says Dr. Strang.

“We hear over and over again that what parents and care providers really need are concrete tools to support young people with co-occurring autism and gender diversity, so that’s what we sought to do here,” he concludes. “It’s exciting because, for the first time, we have some simple tools to support these kids. And this is critical, because although the co-occurrence of autism and gender diversity has been of great interest to researchers, nearly all studies to date have focused on how many transgender youth are autistic, instead of how to help and support this poorly understood group.”

Karin S. Walsh, Psy.D., and Gerard Gioia, Ph.D., in the Division of Neuropsychology pilot robotic telepresence technology to improve video visits.

Neuropsychology pilots robotic telepresence technology for telehealth

Karin S. Walsh, Psy.D., and Gerard Gioia, Ph.D., in the Division of Neuropsychology pilot robotic telepresence technology to improve video visits.

Karin S. Walsh, Psy.D., and Gerard Gioia, Ph.D., in the Division of Neuropsychology pilot robotic telepresence technology to improve video visits.

The telehealth program at Children’s National Hospital continues to expand access to remote specialty care for families, as well as increase consultation and liaison services to hospitals and clinicians who lack specialty care services on site. The Children’s National Division of Neuropsychology has been a leader in adopting multiple telehealth services including direct-to-consumer video visits, psychotherapy video visits, provider consultations and provider training and supervision.

Telehealth as a whole has been shown to increase access to care, with video visits in particular showing greater clinical and educational impact compared to telephone communications. Despite this, one key limitation has been the immobility of technology used to capture video visits.

To solve for immobility, Karin S. Walsh, Psy.D., is leading a pilot study testing the feasibility and acceptability of telepresence robotics in the division. Robot telepresence devices provide a unique approach to video visits, allowing for extended physical mobility and presence, while expanding interactions between providers and patients, supervisors and trainees and in educational interactions. Traditional video visits demonstrate good feasibility and acceptability by patients, families and staff. This new approach aims to increase the “presence” of the provider and further improve clinical impact, educational impact and patient satisfaction.

The division will initially incorporate two robots into clinical care beginning in May 2020.  The pilot study is expected to be carried out over the next 12-18 months, which is particularly timely given the COVID-19 pandemic. The robots, from Double Robotics, offer a high-tech, secure, integrated platform in a device that is user friendly and effective for moving freely through the clinical environment.

“With the addition of the telepresence robots, we anticipate an increase in the quality of care and access for patients and families to neuropsychological specialty care,” says Dr. Walsh. “In addition, given the geographic separation of the program – faculty and trainees are spread across six different locations – the versatile technology will increase the division’s ability to include clinicians with particular expertise into clinical sessions and consultations, as well as in training programs.”

After the pilot study, the team will assess the acceptability of robotic telepresence technology and the special qualities that this modality may offer to enhance quality of care within neuropsychology and within collaborating medical teams.

Vittorio Gallo

Special issue of “Neurochemical Research” honors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D.

Vittorio Gallo

Investigators from around the world penned manuscripts that were assembled in a special issue of “Neurochemical Research” that honors Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., for his leadership in the field of neural development and regeneration.

At a pivotal moment early in his career, Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., was accepted to work with Professor Giulio Levi at the Institute for Cell Biology in Rome, a position that leveraged courses Gallo had taken in neurobiology and neurochemistry, and allowed him to work in the top research institute in Italy directed by the Nobel laureate, Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini.

For four years as a student and later as Levi’s collaborator, Gallo focused on amino acid neurotransmitters in the brain and mechanisms of glutamate and GABA release from nerve terminals. Those early years cemented a research focus on glutamate neurotransmission that would lead to a number of pivotal publications and research collaborations that have spanned decades.

Now, investigators from around the world who have worked most closely with Gallo penned tributes in the form of manuscripts that were assembled in a special issue of “Neurochemical Research” that honors Gallo “for his contributions to our understanding of glutamatergic and GABAergic transmission during brain development and to his leadership in the field of neural development and regeneration,” writes guest editor Arne Schousboe, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Dr. Gallo as a grad student

Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D. as a 21-year-old mustachioed graduate student.

“In spite of news headlines about competition in research and many of the negative things we hear about the research world, this shows that research is also able to create a community around us,” says Gallo, chief research officer at Children’s National Hospital and scientific director for the Children’s National Research Institute.

As just one example, he first met Schousboe 44 years ago when Gallo was a 21-year-old mustachioed graduate student.

“Research can really create a sense of community that we carry on from the time we are in training, nurture as we meet our colleagues at periodic conferences, and continue up to the present. Creating community is bi-directional: influencing people and being influenced by people. People were willing to contribute these 17 articles because they value me,” Gallo says. “This is a lot of work for the editor and the people who prepared papers for this special issue.”

In addition to Gallo publishing more than 140 peer-reviewed papers, 30 review articles and book chapters, Schousboe notes a number of Gallo’s accomplishments, including:

  • He helped to develop the cerebellar granule cell cultures as a model system to study how electrical activity and voltage-dependent calcium channels modulate granule neuron development and glutamate release.
  • He developed a biochemical/neuropharmacological assay to monitor the effects of GABA receptor modulators on the activity of GABA chloride channels in living neurons.
  • He and Maria Usowicz used patch-clamp recording and single channel analysis to demonstrate for the first time that astrocytes express glutamate-activated channels that display functional properties similar to neuronal counterparts.
  • He characterized one of the spliced isoforms of the AMPA receptor subunit gene Gria4 and demonstrated that this isoform was highly expressed in the cerebellum.
  • He and his Children’s National colleagues demonstrated that glutamate and GABA regulate oligodendrocyte progenitor cell proliferation and differentiation.
Purkinje cells

Purkinje cells are 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.

Even the image selected to grace the special issue’s cover continues the theme of continuity and leaving behind a legacy. That image of Purkinje cells was created by a young scientist who works in Gallo’s lab, Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D. Gallo began his career working on the cerebellum – a region of the brain important for motor control – and now studies with a team of scientists and clinician-scientists Purkinje cells’ role in locomotor adaptive behavior and how that is disrupted after neonatal brain injury.

“These cells are the main players in cerebellar circuitry,” Gallo says. “It’s a meaningful image because goes back to my roots as a graduate student and is also an image that someone produced in my lab early in his career. It’s very meaningful to me that Aaron agreed to provide this image for the cover of the special issue.”

NICU evacuation training baby on a stretcher

Innovative NICU training lauded as ‘best article’ by national journal

NICU evacuation training baby on a stretcher

“Fires, tornadoes and other natural disasters are outside of our team’s control. But it is within our team’s control to train neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) staff to master this necessary skill,” says Lisa Zell, BSN, a clinical educator at Children’s National Hospital.

Research into how to create a robust emergency evacuation preparedness plan and continually train staff that was led by Zell was lauded by editors of The Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing. The journal named the study the “best article” for the neonatal section that the prestigious journal published in 2018-19.

“We all hope for the best no matter what the situation, but we also need to extensively plan for the worse,” says Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of the division of neonatology at Children’s National. “I’m proud that Lisa Zell and co-authors received this much-deserved national recognition on behalf of the nation’s No. 1 NICU.”

Educators worked with a diverse group within Children’s National to design and implement periodic evacuation simulations.

In addition to Zell and Lamia Soghier, M.D., FAAP, CHSE, Children’s National NICU medical unit director, study co-authors include Carmen Blake, BSN; Dawn Brittingham, MSN; and Ann-Marie Brown, MSN.

Read more
View photos showing how disaster training occurs at Children’s National

covers of books edited by Children's National faculty

We wrote the book

Children’s National Hospital is proud to have a number of faculty members who literally wrote the books on pediatric cardiology, neonatology, neurology and pulmonology. These texts, edited by experts Gil Wernovsky, M.D., Gordon Avery, M.D., Ricardo Munoz, M.D., Anastassios Koumbourlis, M.D., MPH, Robert Keating, M.D. and Roger Packer, M.D., have become the definitive references for medical students everywhere.

Through these books, generations of children worldwide will benefit from the expertise at Children’s National:

  • Anderson’s Pediatric Cardiology. Wernovsky, G., Anderson, R.H., Kumar, K., Mussatto, K.A., Redington, A.N., Tweddell, J.S., Tretter, J.T. (Eds.). (2019). Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Publishing.
  • Avery’s Neonatology: Pathophysiology and Management of the Newborn. MacDonald, M.G., and Seshia, M.M.K. (Eds.) (2015). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  • Critical Care of Children with Heart Disease: Basic Medical and Surgical Concepts. Munoz, R.A., More, V.O., da Cruz, E.M., Vetterly, C.G., da Silva, J.P. (Eds.). (2010) London, UK: Springer-Verlag London Ltd.
  • Diagnostic Tests in Pediatric Pulmonology. Davis, S.D., Koumbourlis, A.C., and Eber, E. (Eds.). (2015) London, UK: Springer-Verlag London Ltd.
  • Pulmonary Complications of Non-Pulmonary Pediatric Koumbourlis, A.C., and Nevin, M. (Eds.). (2018) London, UK: Springer-Verlag London Ltd.
  • Tumors of the Pediatric Central Nervous system. Keating, R.F., Goodrich, J.T., and Packer, R.J. (Eds.). (2013) New York, NY: Thieme Medical Publishers.

covers of books edited by Children's National faculty

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation

Maternal mental health alters structure and biochemistry of developing fetal brain

Even when pregnant women have uncomplicated pregnancies and high socioeconomic status, when they experience elevated anxiety, stress or depression these prenatal stressors can alter the structure of the developing fetal brain and disrupt its biochemistry, according to Children’s National Hospital research published online Jan. 29, 2020, in JAMA Network Open.

The Children’s National research findings “have enormous scientific, clinical and public health implications,” Charles A. Nelson III, Ph.D.,  Boston Children’s Hospital, writes in a companion editorial.

“Previously we found that 65% of pregnant women who received a diagnosis of fetal congenital heart disease had elevated levels of stress. It’s concerning but not surprising that pregnant women who wonder if their baby will need open heart surgery would feel stress,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “In this latest study, we ran the same panel of questionnaires and were surprised to find a high proportion of otherwise healthy pregnant women whose unborn babies are doing well also report high levels of stress.”

Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems during pregnancy. To learn more about the implications for the developing fetal brain, the Children’s National research team recruited 119 healthy volunteers with low-risk pregnancies from obstetric clinics in Washington, D.C., from Jan. 1, 2016, to April 17, 2019. The women’s mean age was 34.4 years old. All were high school graduates, 83% were college graduates, and 84% reported professional employment.

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation.

T2-Weighted Magnetic Resonance (MR) Imaging Brain Segmentation. Segmentation results of total brain (orange), cortical gray matter (green), white matter (blue), deep gray matter (brown), brainstem (yellow), cerebellum (light blue), left hippocampus (purple) and right hippocampus (red) on a 3-Dimensional reconstructed T2-weighted MR image of a fetus at 26.4 gestational weeks. The hippocampus plays a central role in memory and behavioral inhibition and contains high concentrations of corticosteroid receptors and, thus, this brain region is sensitive to stress. Credit: JAMA Network Open.

The team performed 193 fetal brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sessions between 24-40 weeks gestation and measured the volume of the total fetal brain as well as the cortical gray matter, white matter, deep gray matter, cerebellum, brainstem and hippocampus volumes. On the same day as their MRI visit, the pregnant women completed validated questionnaires to measure maternal stress, anxiety and depression, answering questions such as “how do you feel right now,” “how do you generally feel” as well as the degree of stressful feelings they experienced the month prior.

Of the pregnant women in the study:

  • 27% tested positive for stress
  • 26% tested positive for anxiety
  • 11% tested positive for depression
  • Maternal anxiety and stress were associated with increased fetal cortical gyrification
  • Elevated maternal depression was associated with decreased creatine and choline levels in the fetal brain
  • Maternal stress scores decreased with increasing gestational age, while anxiety and depression did not

“We report for the first time that maternal psychological distress may be associated with increased fetal local gyrification index in the frontal and temporal lobes,” says Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research associate working with Limperopoulos at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “We also found an association with left fetal hippocampal volume, with maternal psychological distress selectively stunting the left hippocampal volumetric growth more than the right. And elevated maternal depression was associated with decreased creatine and choline levels in the fetal brain,” Wu adds.

Late in pregnancy – at the time these women were recruited into the cohort study – the fetal brain grows exponentially and key metabolite levels also rise. Creatine facilitates recycling of adenosine triphosphate, the cell’s energy currency. Typically, levels of this metabolite rise, denoting rapid changes and higher cellular maturation; creatine also is known to support cognitive function. Choline levels also typically rise, marking cell membrane turnover as new cells are generated and support memory, mental focus and concentration.

“These women were healthy, and of high socioeconomic status and educational level, leading us to conclude that the prevalence of prenatal maternal psychological distress may be underestimated,” Limperopoulos adds. “While stress is an everyday reality for most of us, this is different because elevated stress during pregnancy can alter fetal brain programming. Our findings underscore the critical need to universally screen all pregnant women for prenatal psychological distress, even young mothers whose pregnancies wouldn’t otherwise raise red flags.”

In addition to Limperopoulos and Wu, Children’s National study co-authors include Yuan-Chiao Lu, Ph.D., research associate; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., biostatistician; Subechhya Pradhan, Ph.D., research faculty; Kushal Kapse, MS, staff engineer; Li Zhao, Ph.D., research faculty; Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., director of the neuroradiology program; and Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director, Fetal Medicine Institute. Research coordinators Catherine Lopez, MS, Kathryn Lee Bannantine, BSN, and Jessica Lynn Quistorff, MPH, assisted with subject recruitment.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant No. RO1 HL116585-01 and the Thrasher Research Fund under Early Career award No. 14764.

Journal Reference:
Yao Wu, Yuan-Chiao Lu, Marni Jacobs, Subechhya Pradhan, Kushal Kapse, Li Zhao, Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, Gilbert Vezina, Adré J. du Plessis, Catherine Limperopoulos. “Association of prenatal maternal psychological distress with fetal brain growth, metabolism and cortical maturation,” JAMA Network Open, 3(1): e1919940, 2020

William Gaillard

William D. Gaillard, M.D., elected president of the American Epilepsy Society

William Gaillard

“The AES, is one of the oldest neurological professional organizations in the country dedicated to the scientific investigation, exchange of clinical information and eradication of epilepsy and associated disorders, and I’m honored to serve as the new president,” Dr. Gaillard said.

In early December 2019, William D. Gaillard, M.D., chief of the Divisions of Child Neurology, Epilepsy and Neurophysiology at Children’s National Hospital, began his term as president of the American Epilepsy Society (AES) at the annual meeting in Baltimore. The AES is a medical and scientific society with over 4,000 members consisting of clinicians, scientists investigating basic and clinical aspects of epilepsy, and other professionals interested in seizure disorders.

“The AES, is one of the oldest neurological professional organizations in the country dedicated to the scientific investigation, exchange of clinical information and eradication of epilepsy and associated disorders, and I’m honored to serve as the new president,” Dr. Gaillard said.

Dr. Gaillard’s clinical research focuses on the use of advanced imaging to investigate the effect of childhood epilepsy on brain structure and function with an emphasis on cognitive systems. His group also develops and implements imaging strategies to improve epilepsy outcomes.

In addition, Dr. Gaillard, an active participant in AES activities, has served as treasurer and as chair of the Clinical Investigator Workshop and Pediatric Content Committees. He also serves as an associate editor for the journal Epilepsy Research, and as a regular reviewer on AES and Epilepsy Foundation study sections.

As division chief of Child Neurology, Epilepsy and Neurophysiology, Dr. Gaillard directs a team of pediatric specialists who see thousands of patients each year. Dr. Gaillard has worked throughout his career to care for children and young adults with epilepsy from the onset of seizures through novel therapeutic interventions, medication trials and, when appropriate, surgery. Treatment options at Children’s National addresses the full range of the condition, including problems of difficult-to-control epilepsy. Additionally, treatment includes the concurrent social, education and emotional issues faced by children with the condition and their families.

His academic appointments include Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology at George Washington University, Professor of Neurology at Georgetown University, and Professor (adjunct), Hearing and Speech, University of Maryland, College Park.

Lataisia C. Jones on Mission Unstoppable

Getting to know the unstoppable Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D.

Lataisia C. Jones on Mission Unstoppable

Children’s National Hospital neuroscientist Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D., appears in the Jan. 18, 2020, edition of Mission Unstoppable, a Saturday morning show aired by CBS that spotlights cutting-edge women leaders in science, technology, engineering and math.

Budding neuroscientist Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D., is unstoppable. For instance, using everyday items that families can pluck from their own kitchen cabinets, she walks kids through the steps of creating homemade lava lamps. In the process, the youngsters learn a bit of science, like the fact that oil and water do not mix provides the hypnotic magic behind their new lamps.

Jones’ infectious enthusiasm for science that Children’s National Hospital patients and families experience in person during weekly Young Scientist sessions she hosts will be shared nationwide as Jones appears in the Jan. 18, 2020, edition of “Mission Unstoppable.” The half-hour show aired by CBS on Saturday mornings is co-produced by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and spotlights cutting-edge women leaders in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“I’m excited,” Jones says of the filming experience. “It’s going to be an amazing opportunity to show kids that there is a fun way of learning. This show is opening a lot of doors and a lot of eyes to the fact that science can be fun.”

Jones’ scientific inquiry focuses on the corpus callosum, a network of fibers centrally located in the middle of the brain that is responsible for transferring information from one lobe to another. Her current research leverages experimental models to better understand brain abnormalities associated with autism spectrum disorder. Or, as she tells CBS viewers, studying the brain helps the field better understand how information is processed in order for people to move, learn and think effortlessly.

Lataisia C. Jones on Mission Unstoppable

“I’m excited,” Jones says of the filming experience. “It’s going to be an amazing opportunity to show kids that there is a fun way of learning. This show is opening a lot of doors and a lot of eyes to the fact that science can be fun.”

In September 2019, Jones was selected to serve as an IF/THEN Ambassador by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society, to inspire the next generation of women pursuing STEM careers. A postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Neuroscience Research lab run by Masaaki Torii, Ph.D., Jones now also serves as a role model for future scientists, connecting with middle school students in person, virtually and via the CBS network television show.

“A lot of my inspiration comes from individuals who I mentor, which also shows that I am learning as well. If I am able to teach science, translate it in different ways to different audiences, I am helping to fulfill my lifelong dream,” she adds. “I always say we all have an inner scientist.”

As the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Florida State University’s College of Medicine, Department of Neuroscience, Jones has continued to acquire “first” experiences throughout her academic and professional career. But she’s also motivated to diversify the ranks of science to ensure she’s not the last.

“I am not the normal face you see in science,” she says. “Another reason for me to be stronger and to work harder and get more things done in science is so people who look like me know they can do the same things and know that they’re just as good.”

WATCH: Lataisia C. Jones, Ph.D., explains her research

Epilepsy infographic

At a glance: Comprehensive Pediatric Epilepsy Program

Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological conditions that lasts a lifetime, and, in extreme cases, can lead to death. It affects one out of every 26 people across their lifetime, and 8% of children will have a seizure before leaving childhood. One in 10 children with epilepsy is a candidate for surgery.

Children’s National has one of the largest and most experienced multidisciplinary epilepsy programs in the country with a range of programs specializing in new onset epilepsy, the ketogenic diet, intractable epilepsy, neuroinflammation, neurogenetics, epilepsy surgery, epileptic encephalopathy and more.

The Children’s National epilepsy program is continuously working to improve care for patients through clinical innovation, growing our team and expanding access in locations throughout the region.

Epilepsy infographic

To refer a patient or learn more about our program, call 202-476-3611 or visit ChildrensNational.org/Epilepsy.

Catherine Limperopoulos

Stressful pregnancies can leave fingerprint on fetal brain

Catherine Limperopoulos

“We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major fetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s corresponding author.

When a diagnosis of fetal congenital heart disease causes pregnant moms to test positive for stress, anxiety and depression, powerful imaging can detect impaired development in key fetal brain regions, according to Children’s National Hospital research published online Jan. 13, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics.

While additional research is needed, the Children’s National study authors say their unprecedented findings underscore the need for universal screening for psychological distress as a routine part of prenatal care and taking other steps to support stressed-out pregnant women and safeguard their newborns’ developing brains.

“We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major fetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s corresponding author. “Equally concerning is how prevalent psychological distress is among pregnant women generally. We report for the first time that this challenging prenatal environment impairs regions of the fetal brain that play a major role in learning, memory, coordination, and social and behavioral development, making it all the more important for us to identify these women early during pregnancy to intervene,” Limperopoulos adds.

Congenital heart disease (CHD), structural problems with the heart, is the most common birth defect. Still, it remains unclear how exposure to maternal stress impacts brain development in fetuses with CHD.

The multidisciplinary study team enrolled 48 women whose unborn fetuses had been diagnosed with CHD and 92 healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies. Using validated screening tools, they found:

  • 65% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for stress
  • 27% of women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for stress
  • 44% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for anxiety
  • 26% of women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for anxiety
  • 29% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for depression and
  • 9% women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for depression

All told, they performed 223 fetal magnetic resonance imaging sessions for these 140 fetuses between 21 and 40 weeks of gestation. They measured brain volume in cubic centimeters for the total brain as well as volumetric measurements for key regions such as the cerebrum, cerebellum, brainstem, and left and right hippocampus.

Maternal stress and anxiety in the second trimester were associated with smaller left hippocampi and smaller cerebellums only in pregnancies affected by fetal CHD. What’s more, specific regions — the hippocampus head and body and the left cerebellar lobe – were more susceptible to stunted growth. The hippocampus is key to memory and learning, while the cerebellum controls motor coordination and plays a role in social and behavioral development.

The hippocampus is a brain structure that is known to be very sensitive to stress. The timing of the CHD diagnosis may have occurred at a particularly vulnerable time for the developing fetal cerebellum, which grows faster than any other brain structure in the second half of gestation, particularly in the third trimester.

“None of these women had been screened for prenatal depression or anxiety. None of them were taking medications. And none of them had received mental health interventions. In the group of women contending with fetal CHD, 81% had attended college and 75% had professional educations, so this does not appear to be an issue of insufficient resources,” Limperopoulos adds. “It’s critical that we routinely to do these screenings and provide pregnant women with access to interventions to lower their stress levels. Working with our community partners, Children’s National is doing just that to help reduce toxic prenatal stress for both the health of the mother and for the future newborns. We hope this becomes standard practice elsewhere.”

Adds Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research associate working with Limperopoulos at Children’s National and the study’s lead author: “Our next goal is exploring effective prenatal cognitive behavioral interventions to reduce psychological distress felt by pregnant women and improve neurodevelopment in babies with CHD.”

In addition to Limperopoulos and Wu , Children’s National study co-authors include Kushal Kapse, MS, staff engineer; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., biostatistician; Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Mary T. Donofrio, M.D., director, Fetal Heart Program; Anita Krishnan, M.D., associate director, echocardiography; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., director, Neuroradiology Program; David Wessel, M.D., Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer; and Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director, Fetal Medicine Institute. Jessica Lynn Quistorff, MPH, Catherine Lopez, MS, and Kathryn Lee Bannantine, BSN, assisted with subject recruitment and study coordination.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant No. R01 HL116585-01 and the Thrasher Research Fund under Early Career award No. 14764.

sleeping baby

False negatives: Delayed Zika effects in babies who appeared normal at birth

sleeping baby

Colombian infants exposed to Zika virus in the womb showed neurodevelopmental delays as toddlers, despite having “normal” brain imaging and head circumference at birth, a finding that underscores the importance of long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up for Zika-exposed infants.

Colombian infants exposed to Zika virus in the womb showed neurodevelopmental delays as toddlers, despite having “normal” brain imaging and head circumference at birth, a finding that underscores the importance of long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up for Zika-exposed infants, according to a cohort study published online Jan. 6, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics.

“These infants had no evidence of Zika deficits or microcephaly at birth. Neurodevelopmental deficits, including declines in mobility and social cognition, emerged in their first year of life even as their head circumference remained normal,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D. Ph.D., a fetal/neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Hospital and the study’s first author. “About one-third of these newborns who underwent postnatal head ultrasound had nonspecific imaging results, which we believe are the first published results finding a link between subtle brain injuries and impaired neuromotor development in Zika-exposed children.”

The multi-institutional research group led by Children’s National enrolled pregnant women in Atlántico Department, which hugs the Caribbean coast of Colombia, who had been exposed to Zika, and performed a series of fetal magnetic resonance images (MRI) and ultrasounds as their pregnancies progressed.

Even though their mothers had laboratory-confirmed Zika infections, 77 out of 82 of their offspring were born with no sign of congenital Zika syndrome, a constellation of birth defects that includes severe brain abnormalities, eye problems and congenital contractures, and 70 underwent additional testing of neurodevelopment during infancy. These apparently normal newborns were born between Aug. 1, 2016, and Nov. 30, 2017, at the height of the Zika epidemic, and had normal head circumference.

When they were 4 to 8 months or 9 to 18 months of age, the infants’ neurodevelopment was evaluated using two validated tools, the Warner Initial Developmental Evaluation of Adaptive and Functional Skills (a 50-item test of such skills as self-care, mobility, communication and social cognition) and the Alberta Infant Motor Scale (a motor examination of infants in prone, supine, sitting and standing positions). Some infants were assessed during each time point.

Women participating in the study were highly motivated, with 91% following up with appointments, even if it meant traveling hours by bus. In addition to Children’s National faculty traveling to Colombia to train staff how to administer the screening instruments, videotaped assessments, MRIs and ultrasounds were read, analyzed and scored at Children’s National. According to the study team, the U.S. scoring of Alberta Infant Motor Scale tests administered in Colombia is also unprecedented for a research study and offers the potential of remote scoring of infants’ motor skill maturity in regions of the world where pediatric specialists, like child neurologists, are lacking.

“Normally, neurodevelopment in infants and toddlers continues for years, building a sturdy neural network that they later use to carry out complex neurologic and cognitive functions as children enter school,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “Our findings underscore the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that all infants exposed to Zika in the womb undergo long-term follow-up, providing an opportunity to intervene earlier.”

An accompanying editorial by CDC staffers concurs, saying the study reported “intriguing data” that add “to the growing evidence of the need for long-term follow-up for all children with Zika virus exposure in utero to ensure they receive the recommended clinical evaluations even when no structural defects are identified at birth.”

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Margarita Arroyave-Wessel, MPH, Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D., chief of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, JiJi Jiang, MS, Stephanie Russo, BS, Robert McCarter, ScD, research section head, design and biostatistics,  Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine, and co-Senior Author, Roberta L. DeBiasi, MD, MS, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, all of Children’s National; Colleen Peyton, PT, DPT, of Northwestern University; Yamil Fourzali, M.D., of Sabbag Radiologos, Barranquilla, Colombia; Michael E. Msall, M.D., of University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital; and co-Senior Author, Carlos Cure, M.D., BIOMELab, Barranquilla, Colombia.

Funding for the research described in this post was provided by the Thrasher Research Fund, the National Institutes of Health under award Nos. UL1TR001876 and KL2TR001877, and the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disorders Training Program under grant HRSA/MCHB T73 MC11047.

brain network illustration

$2.5M to protect the brain from metabolic insult

brain network illustration

The brain comprises only 2% of the body’s volume, but it uses more than 20% of its energy, which makes this organ particularly vulnerable to changes in metabolism.

More than 30 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority having Type 2 disease. Characterized by insulin resistance and persistently high blood sugar levels, poorly controlled Type 2 diabetes has a host of well-recognized complications: compared with the general population, a greatly increased risk of kidney disease, vision loss, heart attacks and strokes and lower limb amputations.

But more recently, says Nathan A. Smith, MS, Ph.D., a principal investigator in Children’s National Research Institute’s Center for Neuroscience Research, another consequence has become increasingly apparent. With increasing insulin resistance comes cognitive damage, a factor that contributes significantly to dementia diagnoses as patients age.

The brain comprises only 2% of the body’s volume, but it uses more than 20% of its energy, Smith explains – which makes this organ particularly vulnerable to changes in metabolism. Type 2 diabetes and even prediabetic changes in glucose metabolism inflict damage upon this organ in mechanisms with dangerous synergy, he adds. Insulin resistance itself stresses brain cells, slowly depriving them of fuel. As blood sugar rises, it also increases inflammation and blocks nitric oxide, which together narrow the brain’s blood vessels while also increasing blood viscosity.

When the brain’s neurons slowly starve, they become increasingly inefficient at doing their job, eventually succumbing to this deprivation. These hits don’t just affect individual cells, Smith adds. They also affect connectivity that spans across the brain, neural networks that are a major focus of his research.

While it’s well established that Type 2 diabetes significantly boosts the risk of cognitive decline, Smith says, it’s been unclear whether this process might be halted or even reversed. It’s this question that forms the basis of a collaborative Frontiers grant, $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation split between his laboratory; the lead institution, Stony Brook University; and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

Smith and colleagues at the three institutions are testing whether changing the brain’s fuel source from glucose to ketones – byproducts from fat metabolism – could potentially save neurons and neural networks over time. Ketones already have shown promise for decades in treating some types of epilepsy, a disease that sometimes stems from an imbalance in neuronal excitation and inhibition. When some patients start on a ketogenic diet – an extreme version of a popular fat-based diet – many can significantly decrease or even stop their seizures, bringing their misfiring brain cells back to health.

Principal Investigator Smith and his laboratory at the Children’s National Research Institute are using experimental models to test whether ketones could protect the brain against the ravages of insulin resistance. They’re looking specifically at interneurons, the inhibitory cells of the brain and the most energy demanding. The team is using a technique known as patch clamping to determine how either insulin resistance or insulin resistance in the presence of ketones affect these cells’ ability to fire.

They’re also looking at how calcium ions migrate in and out of the cells’ membranes, a necessary prerequisite for neurons’ electrical activity. Finally, they’re evaluating whether these potential changes to the cells’ electrophysiological properties in turn change how different parts of the brain communicate with each other, potentially restructuring the networks that are vital to every action this organ performs.

Colleagues at Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, led by Principal Investigator Eva-Maria Ratai, Ph.D.,  will perform parallel work in human subjects. They will use imaging to determine how these two fuel types, glucose or ketones, affect how the brain uses energy and produces the communication molecules known as neurotransmitters. They’re also investigating how these factors might affect the stability of neural networks using techniques that investigate the performance of these networks both while study subjects are at rest and performing a task.

Finally, colleagues at the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology at Stony Brook University, led by Principal Investigator Lilianne R. Mujica-Parodi, Ph.D., will use results generated at the other two institutions to construct computational models that can accurately predict how the brain will behave under metabolic stress: how it copes when deprived of fuel and whether it might be able to retain healthy function when its cells receive ketones instead of glucose.

Collectively, Smith says, these results could help retain brain function even under glucose restraints. (For this, the research team owes a special thanks to Mujica-Parodi, who assembled the group to answer this important question, thus underscoring the importance of team science, he adds.)

“By supplying an alternate fuel source, we may eventually be able to preserve the brain even in the face of insulin resistance,” Smith says.

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Making healthcare innovation for children a priority

Dr. Kurt Newman in front of the capitol building

Recently, Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children’s National Hospital, authored an opinion piece for the popular political website, The Hill. In the article, he called upon stakeholders from across the landscape to address the significant innovation gap in children’s healthcare versus adults.

As Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Children’s Hospital Association,  Dr. Newman knows the importance of raising awareness among policy makers at the federal and state level about the healthcare needs of children. Dr. Newman believes that children’s health should be a national priority that is addressed comprehensively. With years of experience as a pediatric surgeon, he is concerned by the major inequities in the advancements of children’s medical devices and technologies versus those for adults. That’s why Children’s National is working to create collaborations, influence policies and facilitate changes that will accelerate the pace of pediatric healthcare innovation for the benefit of children everywhere. One way that the hospital is tackling this challenge is by developing the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, which will be the nation’s first innovation campus focused on pediatric research.