Stories about: Ellen Grant

Why is one twin sometimes smaller than the other? The answer may lie in the placenta

placental oxygen transport may help determine fetal size

When a baby is born small, it’s often chalked up to genetics or to maternal risk factors like poor nutrition or smoking. A study of twin pregnancies, published today in Scientific Reports, finds another factor that can be measured prentally: slower transport of oxygen from mother to baby across the placenta.

The study, part of the NIH-funded Human Placenta Project, is the first to make a direct connection between placental oxygen transport and birth outcomes. It relies on a new, noninvasive technique called Blood-Oxygenation-Level-Dependent (BOLD) MRI. Developed by P. Ellen Grant, MD, director of the Fetal-Neonatal Neuroimaging and Developmental Science Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and Elfar Adalsteinsson, PhD at MIT, it maps oxygen delivery across the placenta in real time.

“Until now, we had no way to look at regional placental function in vivo,” says Grant.

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Science Seen: Disrupted developmental genes cause ‘split brain’

split brain syndrome
The two halves of the brain on the right, from a patient with the DCC mutation, are almost completely disconnected. The mutation — first recognized in worms — prevents axons (nerve fibers) from crossing the midline of the brain by interfering with guidance cues. Image courtesy Ellen Grant, MD, director, Fetal-Neonatal Neuroimaging and Developmental Science Center.

Tim Yu, MD, PhD, a neurologist and genomics researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, was studying autism genes when he saw something on a list that rang a bell. It was a mutation that completely knocked out the so-called Deleted in Colorectal Carcinoma gene (DCC), originally identified in cancer patients. The mutation wasn’t in a patient with autism, but in a control group of patients with brain malformations he’d been studying in the lab of Chris Walsh, MD, PhD.

Yu’s mind went back more than 20 years. As a graduate student at University of California, San Francisco, he’d conducted research in roundworms, studying genetic mutations that made the worms, which normally move in smooth S-shaped undulations, move awkwardly and erratically.

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Placental MRI to monitor fetal health?

Placental MRI

Prenatal ultrasounds monitor fetal health in part by gauging blood flow from mother to fetus through the placenta. But researchers at MIT, Boston Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital are diving deeper with magnetic resonance imaging. They’re taking advantage of MRI’s ability to measure oxygen concentrations in the placenta and fetal organs.

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Maternal-infant health research will bring placenta into view

placental health
A pre-1858 schematic of the placental circulation from Gray’s Anatomy (Wikimedia Commons).

The afterbirth has generally been an afterthought, but that’s about to change.

This week, 19 research centers were awarded grants from NIH’s Human Placenta Project, which is seeking to learn more about the intricate organ that sustained us in the womb, the interface between us and our mothers.

A robust placenta is key to a healthy pregnancy and baby, but strangely, not much is actually known about it. “It’s a fascinating but very poorly understood structure,” says P. Ellen Grant, MD, who directs the Fetal-Neonatal Neuroimaging and Developmental Science Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and is leading one of the projects.

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Delivering a baby MEG

baby MEG
This array of sensors surrounding a baby’s head will give researchers and eventually clinicians a high-resolution image of neural activity.

Imagine you’re a clinician or researcher and you want to find the source of a newborn’s seizures. Imagine being able to record, in real time, the neural activity in his brain and to overlay that information directly onto an MRI scan of his brain. When an abnormal electrical discharge triggered a seizure, you’d be able to see exactly where in the brain it originated.

For years, that kind of thinking has been the domain of dreams. Little is known about infant brains, largely because sophisticated neuroimaging technology simply hasn’t been designed with infants in mind. Boston Children’s Hospital’s Ellen Grant, MD, and Yoshio Okada, PhD, are debuting a new magnetoencephalography (MEG) system designed to turn those dreams into reality.

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