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Off to a great start

Michael Georgieff, M.D., examines a graphical representation of a child's brain waves. University experts pioneered the use of specialized tools that help them evaluate development and thinking in very young children, even in infants. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

University physicians and researchers find that it’s never too early to begin optimizing kids’ brain development

The right timing can make all the difference. And where children’s brain development is concerned, University of Minnesota researchers are finding that particularly important.

“The earlier you intervene, the bigger impact you can have,” says Michael Georgieff, M.D., director of the University’s Center for Neurobehavioral Development and a neonatologist at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital. “You’re laying the foundation for a healthy adult mental life.”

That’s one reason so many public health initiatives focus on the first thousand days—or about the first three years—of life, he adds.

So as a neonatologist, working with premature and critically ill babies who are especially vulnerable, Georgieff digs in on day one. With colleagues in the Department of Pediatrics and throughout the University, Georgieff is determining key factors that influence infants’ brain health and discovering which early medical and nutritional treatments can improve longterm brain function the most.

The University is the perfect place to conduct this work, Georgieff says. “We have an impressive ‘deep bench,’” he explains, which includes colleagues at the University’s Institute of Child Development (the top-ranked child development/child psychology program in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report), at its world-renowned Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, and in its strong neuroscience graduate program. The team also has access to the specialized tools that can help evaluate development and cognition in very young children, even in infants.

“We are uniquely positioned to identify those who have fallen off their developmental trajectory and help with early therapy, when the brain is more plastic,” Georgieff says.

Boosting the world’s I.Q.

Georgieff’s research was the first to demonstrate that iron deficiency itself, not anemia (a condition, most commonly caused by iron deficiency, in which a person’s blood doesn’t carry enough oxygen to the rest of the body), is responsible for cognitive deficits.

“There are many factors that determine preemies’ outcomes, but nutrition is one thing we can do something about right away,” Georgieff says.

About 2 billion people are iron deficient worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. The most common cause is maternal anemia during pregnancy, and after birth, kids in developing countries are often at risk because of iron-poor diets and parasitic infections that cause blood loss. In the United States, the most likely culprit of iron deficiency after birth is too-early introduction of cow’s milk, Georgieff says, which is low in iron the body can use.

“It’s been estimated that if you could cure the three most common micronutrient deficiencies—iron, zinc, and iodine—the world’s collective I.Q. would go up by 10 points,” Georgieff says.

Phu Tran, Ph.D., is researching how nutritional deficiencies early in life can affect a child's ability to learn and remember. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Learning from the lab

Assistant professor of pediatrics Phu Tran, Ph.D., is examining just how these deficiencies affect the developing brain. He conducts lab research on how early adversity, caused by factors such as stress or nutritional deficiency, can limit a child’s ability to learn and remember throughout life. Particularly, he’s studying a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which plays a crucial role in helping the brain grow and adapt, and how it can explain the cognitive deficit that occurs during and after a period of iron deficiency.

In an animal model of early-life iron deficiency, Tran’s team found persistent changes in the brain networks that are involved with efficient information processing.

“With these insights, we can devise potential treatment strategies to optimize brain function in conjunction with iron treatment,” he says. For example, he and his colleagues are currently testing whether supplementing choline, a nutrient in the B-vitamin family that is accessible worldwide, can help reverse damage caused by iron deficiency early in life.

Sara Ramel, M.D., tracks NICU graduates' growth to find out which factors lead to optimal long-term health. (Photo courtesy of Michael Schmidt)

Surviving and thriving

Now that preemies are surviving at higher rates than ever, this work is becoming more and more important. As University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital neonatologist Sara Ramel, M.D., says, “We’re helping those tiny babies in the NICU not just to survive, but thrive.”

Ramel is exploring the importance of protein as a building block for infant brain health. She’s also refined the way that babies’ growth and brain development is measured.

“We’ve learned through our research that while weight gain in infants is important, there are other factors that also need to be monitored, including how long infants are, and the fat-to-muscle ratio in their bodies,” she says. “Understanding all these key measures may lead to improved neurodevelopmental and cardiovascular outcomes.”

Ramel’s research has shown that preemies who were longer in their first year of life scored higher on cognitive and speech tests at age 2.

The high-end Pea Pod Infant Body Composition System helps U physician-researchers assess fat-to-muscle ratio noninvasively and without radiation. (Photo courtesy of Michael Schmidt)

It also has shown that children who gained more muscle mass during their time in the hospital and in the four months after going home were able to process information faster.

Premature babies have higher fat mass, and less muscle mass, when compared with babies born at full term. Ramel’s group hypothesizes that infants who experience early fast growth, specifically in fat mass, could face an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, and hypertension as adults.

The first group of preemies that Ramel studied is just now reaching preschool age. Those kids are being measured for body composition, blood pressure, and cognitive abilities again because measurements at preschool age can better predict long-term metabolic risk and long-term school success than those obtained during early infancy.

Ramel hopes that this work will lead to earlier and better ways to enhance children’s brain development and growth. And she’s optimistic about the future for the preemies she sees in the hospital every day.

“We want them to be successful in school and live long, healthy, productive lives,” she says. “I can’t imagine a better job—to take care of babies and learn ways to make their lives better.”

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