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Nancy Fliesler

music and executive functionMy daughter just surprised me by signing up for fifth grade band starting this fall. To my further delight, some new research—using both cognitive testing and brain imaging—suggests that as she practices her clarinet, she also may be honing her executive functions.

Like a CEO who’s on top of her game, executive functions—separate from IQ—are those high-level brain functions that enable us to quickly process and retain information, curb impulsive behaviors, plan, make good choices, solve problems and adjust to changing cognitive demands. While it’s already clear that musical training relates to cognitive abilities, few previous studies have looked at its effects on executive functions specifically.

The study, appearing this week in PLOS ONE, compared children with and without regular musical training, as well as adults. To the researchers’ knowledge, it’s the first such study to use functional MRI (fMRI) of brain areas associated with executive function and to adjust for socioeconomic factors. Full story »

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Classic Penfield motor homunculus could be different in soccer playersOne of my very favorite images in science, Dr. Wilder Penfield’s classic motor homunculus, shows how much brain real estate is devoted to controlling movement of different parts of the body. Notice the huge hands and the tiny feet. As the World Cup gets underway, soccer fan Jeffrey Holt, PhD, also a Boston Children’s Hospital neuroscientist, writes that soccer is more than just a great sport, it’s “a triumphant display of the incredible plasticity of the human brain… because the soccer player is limited by one simple rule: no hands!”

Though no one’s actually taken a look, Holt imagines that the brains of great soccer players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Neymar would have much expanded neural representation of the feet. Read more in his post on WBUR-Boston’s Cognoscenti blog.

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Mila-cap-ball-2014-05-08 12.24.14Is 9-month-old Mila Goshgarian at risk for developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Her 4-year-old twin brothers are both on the spectrum, so statistically her chances are at least 20 percent.

Her mother, Tonia, brought her into Boston Children’s Hospital for the Infant Sibling Project, which works with babies who are at increased risk of developing ASD in hopes of discovering early brain biomarkers for the disorder. This is Mila’s fifth visit; she’s been coming to the Labs of Cognitive Neuroscience for testing since the age of 3 months. Full story »

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boy with cerebral palsyThe start of what promises to be a lengthy, multi-part endeavor has begun unfolding on Capitol Hill. It’s an attempt to reform the Medicaid program so that children with medical complexity (those with a single, serious medical condition, or multiple chronic conditions) can receive higher quality care with fewer emergency department visits and fewer hospital admissions.

When you think of medically complex children, think of children living with conditions such as spina bifida or cerebral palsy, children dependent on ventilators or feeding tubes, or children with genetic disorders. They represent just 6 percent of the 43 million children on Medicaid—yet they account for about 40 percent of Medicaid’s spending on children. Their care is often fragmented and poorly coordinated.

The reform effort, led by more than 60 participating pediatric hospitals and supported by the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA), focuses on Medicaid because it’s the single largest insurance provider for children. The backdrop is a cost-conscious Congress that’s the most politically polarized ever, passing the fewest bills ever. Full story »

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Macrophage therapy IBD

Giving patients the right kind of immune cells could curb their IBD, research suggests.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is miserable for anyone, but when it strikes a child under age 5, it’s much more severe, usually causing bloody diarrhea, wrenching abdominal pain and stunted growth. Early-onset IBD is rare, but on the rise: For reasons unknown, its incidence is increasing by about 5 percent per year in some parts of the world.

A recently identified form of early-onset IBD shows up within months of birth, causing severe inflammation in the large intestine and abscesses around the anus. Recently linked to genetic mutations in the cellular receptor for a signaling protein, interleukin-10 (IL-10), it can also lead to lymphoma later in life.

As with all early-onset IBD, IL-10-receptor deficiency has no good treatment. A bone marrow transplant is actually curative, but carries many risks, especially in infants.

“We’ve been trying to understand why IBD in these children is so severe and presents so early,” says Dror Shouval, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and a fellow in the lab of Scott Snapper, MD, PhD. The beginnings of such an understanding—detailed recently in the journal Immunity—could lead to a new treatment approach for this and perhaps other kinds of early-onset IBD. Full story »

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Preliminary findings suggest steroid treatment could improve language and behavior in children with ASD.

Preliminary findings suggest that steroid treatment could improve language and behavior in children with regressive ASD.

In as many as a third of cases of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), children’s language and social skills develop normally at first. Then, between 1 and 2 ½ years of age, they begin to regress, losing words and retreating from interactions with parents—often abruptly. There has been some anecdotal evidence that steroid treatment can help these children, and a small retrospective study agrees—finding improved language and behavior and reversal of a characteristic abnormality in the language processing area of their brains.

Researchers led by Frank H. Duffy, MD, of the Epilepsy Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, looked back at 20 children 3 to 5 years old with documented regressive ASD who had received steroid therapy (prednisolone) under a neurologist’s supervision, generally starting several months after their regression was noted. For comparison, the team also reviewed data from 24 similar autistic children who did not receive steroids. Full story »

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ICISS screengrab2What happens when you try to scale up a successful quality initiative? Eric Fleegler, MD, MPH, and Eugenia Chan, MD, MPH, are facing that challenge with ICISS, their web-based system that went quickly from ideation to adoption by 3,000 patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and their families.

ICISS enables parents, teachers and patients to give online updates on medications, symptoms and school performance in close to real time, then packages that data for clinicians in a visual, actionable fashion. But tasked with introducing ICISS into four other clinics at Boston Children’s Hospital—autism, asthma, depression and epilepsy—a raft of practical, legal and philosophical questions came up about how to handle these patient-generated health data. For example:

  • How should we inform families that they need to contact their provider directly with immediate concerns?
  • What if a parent indicates that a child is at risk of self-harm, and how can we manage this in a timely manner?
  • How can clinics afford to hire additional staff to screen and manage alerts from ICISS when this activity is non-reimbursable?
  • What is the obligation of the provider if actionable data show up months in advance of the scheduled visit?

Fleegler and Chan discuss the challenges and lessons learned in our sister publication, Innovation Insider. We’d be interested to hear from others facing similar questions in handling patient-generated health data.

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A cocktail of approaches is most likely to successfully preserve muscle.

Rather than a single drug, cocktail of approaches is most likely to successfully preserve muscle.

It’s been 28 years since a missing dystrophin protein was found to be the cause of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a disease affecting mostly boys in which muscle progressively deteriorates. Dystrophin helps maintain the structure of muscle cells; without it, muscles weaken and suffer progressive damage, forcing boys into wheelchairs and onto respirators.

Today, a variety of approaches that attempt to either restore dystrophin or compensate for its loss are in the therapeutic pipeline.

“We’re at the point where lots of things are going into clinical trials,” says Louis Kunkel, PhD, who is credited with identifying dystrophin in 1987. “I call it the decade of therapy.” Full story »

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heart chip BarthIt was the variability that intrigued pediatric cardiologist William Pu, MD, about his patient with heart failure. The boy suffered from a rare genetic mitochondrial disorder called Barth syndrome. While he ultimately needed a heart transplant, his heart function seemed to vary day-to-day, consistent with reports in the medical literature.

“Often patients present in infancy with severe heart failure, then in childhood it gets much better, and in the teen years, much worse,” says Pu, of the Cardiology Research Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “This reversibility suggests that this is a disease we should really be able to fix.”

Though it needs much more testing, a potential fix may now be in sight for Barth syndrome, which has no specific treatment and also causes skeletal muscle weakness and low white-blood-cell counts. It’s taken the work of multiple labs collaborating across institutional lines. Full story »

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De-risking drug development for orphan diseasePerhaps counter-intuitively, rare diseases can present attractive business opportunities for pharmaceutical companies. As discussed previously on Vector, they generally offer:

1) a population of patients with a high, unmet need, greatly lowering the bar to FDA approval

2) a closely networked disease community, greatly lowering the bar to creating disease registries and mounting clinical trials

3) well-studied disease pathways.

Recoiling from expensive failures of would-be blockbuster drugs, companies like Pfizer, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, Shire and Roche are embracing rare diseases, despite their small market sizes, because of their much clearer path to clinic. But in the current risk-averse industry environment, some projects are stalling. Industry may need more incentive to jump in—and Cydan Development is basing its business model on providing it. Full story »

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