Stories about: brain development

Could “network” analysis of the brain explain autism’s features?

Ed note: The Obama administration is expected to unveil plans for a decade-long Brain Activity Map project next month. This is Part One of a two-part series on brain mapping.

autism
How is information routed in the brains of children with autism? (Image: Jpatokal/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s now pretty well accepted that autism is a disorder of brain connectivity—demonstrated visually with advanced MRI techniques that can track the paths of nerve fibers. Recent exciting work analyzing EEG recordings supports the idea of altered connectivity, while suggesting the possibility of a diagnostic test for autism.

But what’s happening on a functional level? A study published this week zooms out to take a 30,000-foot view, tracking how the brain routes information in children with autism—in much the way airlines and electrical grids are mapped—and assessing the function of the network as a whole.

“What we found may well change the way we look at the brains of autistic children,” says investigator Jurriaan Peters, MD, of the Department of Neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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Your brain on neglect: The evidence

D Sharon Pruitt/Flickr

If there wasn’t enough reason to be concerned about children suffering psychological and physical neglect—by their family, in foster homes, or from war or weather catastrophes—we now have three good lines of evidence that neglect harms a child’s developing brain.

But there’s also hope that some of this harm can be undone if caught in time.

Impaired IQ

The first evidence comes from cognitive studies done in Romania, where the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) has transferred some children reared in its infamous orphanages, selected at random, into quality foster care homes. In 2007, Charles Nelson, PhD, and colleagues documented cognitive impairment in institutionalized children, but also showed improvement when children were placed in good foster homes, especially when they were placed before age 2.

Further evidence—brain imaging—comes from a more recent study by Nelson’s colleague Margaret Sheridan, PhD.

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Immune cells “sculpt” brain circuits — by eating excess connections

The above movie shows an immune cell caught in the act of tending the brain—it’s just eaten away unnecessary connections, or synapses, between neurons.

That’s not something these cells, known as microglia, were previously thought to do. As immune cells, it was thought that their job was to rid the body of unwanted pathogens and debris, by engulfing and digesting them.

The involvement of microglia in the brain’s development has started to be recognized only recently. The latest research finds that microglia tune into the brain’s cues, akin to the way they survey their environment for invading microbes, and get rid of excess synapses the same way they’d dispatch these invaders—by eating them.

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Innovation Day at Children’s Hospital Boston: A preview

Valentine's Day is Innovation Day (image: Richard Giles/Flickr)

In a series of 17 short TED-style talks next Tuesday, February 14, clinicians and scientists from Children’s will present new products, processes and technologies to make health care safer, better and less expensive. The event, from 1-5 p.m. Eastern, is sponsored by the Innovation Acceleration Program. It’s now running a wait list, but you can also watch the live stream or track the proceedings on Twitter (#iDay) or via @science4care. Here’s a small sampling of next week’s presenters; for details, read the press release or view the full agenda.

Diagnosing lazy eye when it’s most treatable: in preschoolers

If lazy eye, or amblyopia, is caught early – ideally, before age 5 – it’s easily treated by patching the “good” eye, forcing the child to use and strengthen the weaker eye. But if it goes unnoticed, the weak, unused eye can slowly go blind,

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Dodging the long-term cognitive effects of early-life seizures

Seizures seem to strengthen and “lock in” synapses too soon, leaving no room for development. (Image: Ice synapses, Joe Flintham/Flickr)

It’s well known that babies who have seizures soon after birth have roughly a 50-50 chance of developing long-term intellectual and memory deficits and cognitive disorders like autism. But until now, it wasn’t understood why these deficits occur, much less how to prevent them from happening.

In the December 14 Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston, led by neurologist-neuroscientist Frances Jensen, detail in a rat model how early-life seizures affect brain development at the cellular and molecular level. But more to the point, they show that it might be possible to ward off these effects with drug treatment soon after the seizure – using a drug called NBQX or similar drugs that are already approved by the FDA.

Jenson was particularly interested in what seizures do to synapses, the connections between neurons that are rapidly developing in the infant brain.

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A view of autism: altered brain pathways, disordered white matter

A growing body of evidence from genetic and cell studies indicates that autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) result from abnormalities in how neurons connect to each other to establish brain circuitry. Striking MRI images taken at Children’s Hospital Boston, published in the January Academic Radiology, now strengthen this case visually.

Children’s neurologist-neuroscientist Mustafa Sahin, Simon Warfield, director of the hospital’s Computational Radiology Laboratory, and Jurriaan Peters compared brain organization in 29 healthy subjects with that in 40 patients with tuberous sclerosis, a rare genetic syndrome often associated with cognitive and behavioral deficits, including ASDs about 50 percent of the time. “Patients with tuberous sclerosis can be diagnosed at birth or potentially before birth, because of cardiac tumors that are visible on ultrasound, giving us the opportunity to understand the circuitry of the brain at an early age,” explains Sahin.

The panels above (click to enlarge) are advanced MRI images

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Serendipity in science: Collaborating to build robotic clothing for brain-damaged children

A sequence of motion frames of a normally kicking baby's legs (shown in blue and green), illustrating changing joint angles at the hip and knee.

Countless scientific epiphanies never leave the bench – unless there’s the kind of serendipitous encounter that set Children’s Hospital Boston psychologist Gene Goldfield on a path he never expected to follow.

One in eight babies are born prematurely, putting them at greater risk for cerebral palsy, an inability to fully control their muscles. Goldfield saw these children being wheeled around the hospital, and was convinced that they did not have to be wheelchair-bound.

During early infancy, he knew, the developing brain naturally undergoes a rewiring of its circuits, including those that control the muscles. Could some type of early intervention encourage more typical motor development by replacing damaged circuits with more functional connections?

At Children’s Innovators’ Forum last week, Goldfield discussed his envisioned solution: the use of programmable robots

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Is it really ADHD? Brain activity may provide an objective measure

The right inferior frontal gyrus, part of the prefrontal cortex, lights up on fMRI when children play a game requiring them to resist a natural impulse. This brain area is naturally in flux between ages 5 and 7, Sheridan has found.

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines on attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), lowering the minimum age at which physicians should consider drug treatment from 6 years to 4 years.

But here’s the problem. “Current behavioral criteria for ADHD are most effective only after age 8 or 9,” says Margaret Sheridan of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Children’s Hospital Boston. “If you use them at age 3 to 6, then you’re wrong about half the time, and the child will stop meeting the criteria by age 8.”

Little kids, especially boys, are naturally distractible, impulsive and fidgety. Some mature more slowly; some are just the youngest in their class. Many will grow out of their wild but largely age-appropriate behaviors.

But letting true ADHD fester, explaining symptoms away as “kids just being kids,” deprives children of the benefits of behavioral or pharmacologic treatment at a time when their young brains are highly responsive.

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Early brain checkups for dyslexia, autism and more

Researchers are seeking to track the brain at earlier and earlier ages (here, the brain of a newborn baby born 10 weeks prematurely). © FNNDSC 2011

For the third year running, my daughter is participating in a dyslexia study she entered at age 5, just after finishing preschool. Thinking she was part of a game, she spent about 45 minutes lying still in a rocket ship (in reality, an MRI scanner), doing mental tasks she believed would help lost aliens find their way back to their planet.

All the while, her brain was being imaged, helping a team led by Nadine Gaab of Children’s Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience to find a pattern indicating that she might be at risk for dyslexia. Such signatures might flag children who could benefit from early intervention, sparing them the frustration of struggling with dyslexia once in school.

Getting brain MRIs from young childrenwithout resorting to sedation — is a difficult feat (Gaab and colleagues shared their protocol in the Journal of Visualized Experiments). But as reported in today’s Boston Globe, Gaab and Children’s neuroradiologist Ellen Grant are pushing the envelope even further, trying to find MRI signatures of dyslexia in infants.

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Why does brain development diverge in autism?

Many autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are marked by apparently normal development in infancy followed by a tragic loss of cognitive, social and language skills starting at 12 to 18 months of age. ASDs are increasingly seen as a disorder of synapses, the connections between neurons that together form brain circuits.

What hasn’t been clear is why children with ASDs go off the normal trajectory after meeting their early developmental milestones. But now there may be a hint of an explanation.

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