The first week of a baby’s life is a time of rapid biological change. The newborn must adapt to living outside the womb, suddenly exposed to new bacteria and viruses. Yet scientists know surprisingly little about these early changes.
Reporting in today’s Nature Communications, an international research team provides the most detailed accounting to date of the molecular changes that occur during a newborn’s first seven days. The team pioneered a technique to extract volumes of data from a tiny amount of newborn blood — including what genes are turned on, what proteins the body is making and what metabolites are changing.
Sepsis, or bacterial infection of the bloodstream, is a grave threat to premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) who have catheters and intravenous lines. Even when antibiotics clear the infection itself, the inflammation that it causes can do just as much damage. Not only can sepsis and the resulting inflammation interfere with fragile preemies’ ability to gain weight, but a growing literature suggests that they can impair brain development.
Preventive measures can now avoid many cases of sepsis, but those that slip through can be hard to detect in newborns.
“Newborns can’t speak, and they have unique immune systems, so they tend not to have fevers or show clinical signs,” explains Ofer Levy, MD, PhD, of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital. “There may be irregular breathing or increased heart rate, or the baby may be acting a little ‘off,’ but these signs are pretty nonspecific. There’s a tremendous need for better diagnostics in this field.”
While the genome’s As, Ts, Cs, and Gs hold the instructions for making proteins, how does a cell know when to read a gene? And could it relate to developmental disorders?
These gene-reading instructions are encoded in our epigenome, a set of factors that give our cells exquisite control over when and where to turn individual genes on and off. This control involves a delicate and complex dance between DNA and proteins called histones – DNA wraps itself around histones to create a complex called chromatin – as well as the many different types of epigenetic tags.
Yang Shi, of the Division of Newborn Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston, wants to understand what happens when the genome doesn’t read the epigenome’s instructions correctly, which in the developing brain can cause intellectual disabilities. …
Surprisingly little is known about the brains of babies under age 2 — because of the challenges of safely imaging children so young. Head-circumference measures at the pediatrician’s office tell very little about what’s going on inside. But there’s much to know, because rapidly developing brains are vulnerable to injury.
Here, Ellen Grant, a neuroradiologist trained in theoretical physics, describes how advanced imaging techniques and computational science are providing a better understanding of the newborn and even fetal brain. With these tools, neurologists can watch the brain as it forms and folds, track the growth of individual brain structures, and detect problems in brain organization before anything can be noticed by parents or physicians — then correlate these measurements with child developmental measures.
Children’s Hospital Boston is building a neuroimaging facility with specially designed, baby-sized equipment — the only one in the world to be situated near a neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit. It will help answer questions like: What prenatal brain development is missed when a baby is born even two weeks shy of its due date? What does a brain structure growing out of synch at 6 months mean for language development in preschool? Are interventions for brain injury, such as hypothermia, effective? Grant’s ultimate goal is to get advanced neuroimaging into routine clinical care, to monitor infants and newborns with brain injury, predict their future course, and evaluate new treatments.