Featured Specialty: Children’s Health

Scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute are developing new strategies for evaluating and enhancing the physical and cognitive development of children. Their scientific vision extends throughout the early years and beyond, as they seek enduring benefits that can transform children’s lives.

Rewiring Damaged Brains in Children

The early years of a child’s development are critical, with an impact that reverberates throughout life.

Dr. Sharon Ramey has pioneered the use of constraint-induced movement therapies to improve quality of life for children with cerebral palsy. These therapies teach the brain to “rewire” itself following a major injury such as stroke or head injury. These treatments significantly improve quality of movement and substantially increase the amount of use of the more-affected extremities in the activities of daily living for a large majority of patients who undergo them. Constraint-induced movement therapies are the only rehabilitation techniques shown to produce a marked change in brain organization and function.

As part of this work, Dr. Ramey conducts rigorous research to determine the maximal benefits with the minimal investments of time, to allow families to take advantage of limited early intervention services. Her advances are being adopted all over the world.

Along with long-time collaborator Dr. Stephanie DeLuca, Dr. Ramey launched the VTCRI Neuromotor Research Clinic in 2013. Already the clinic has treated children from around the world.

Research Breakthroughs in Children’s Health: A Collaborative Program

Virginia Tech, Children’s National Health System, and George Washington University have partnered in a unique program to create research breakthroughs in children’s health. The three institutions contributed a total of $375,000 to support seven collaborative research projects that use translational science to address health issues so complex they require new insights, conceptual approaches, and technological advances. Three of those projects include Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists.

Tackling the Leading Cause of Childhood Blindness

Dr. Konark Mukherjee and Dr. Michael Fox both study neonatal development of neural circuitry. Dr. Mukherjee is currently studying the molecular underpinnings of optic nerve hypoplasia, the leading cause of childhood blindness.

Dr. Fox will contribute to the research with his work on understanding vision development.

In a separate project, Dr. Mukherjee focuses on identifying new genes and potential therapeutic targets to prevent mental retardation and craniofacial abnormalities in children.

Risky Behavior Among Adolescents

Beyond the physical health of children, scientists are also studying mental health in developing children, especially addiction.

Most addiction starts during adolescence, so it is properly considered a developmental disease. Why are teenagers so susceptible, and why do they grow into adults who continue to engage in behaviors that threaten to destroy their health, their families, and even their lives?

Dr. Warren Bickel, Dr. Brooks King-Casas, and Dr. Pearl Chiu study how teenagers assess risky situations and make decisions.

Early Education and Experiences

Dr. Craig Ramey founded the Abecedarian Project, a landmark early childhood education program aimed at improving the lives of children in poverty. The unprecedented success of this decades-long initiative has proved the power of early intervention in children’s lives—and fueled the continued work of Dr. Ramey and his key collaborator, Dr. Sharon Ramey.

Dr. Sharon Ramey researches how the contribution of early experiences, starting even before conception, can contribute to postnatal health, social, emotional, and intellectual development. She also works with Dr. Craig Ramey to improve the provision of health, education, and social services to benefit children and families.

Understanding Immunity and Improving Vaccines

Institute researchers also study childhood illness, such as Dr. Sarah McDonald's research on rotavirus, which causes dehydration and diarrhea. Although vaccines exist, in parts of the developing world, half a million children still die from the virus every year. Dr. McDonald is studying how the virus works, and that knowledge could lead to improved vaccine efficacy.

Dr. McDonald works with Dr. Deborah Kelly to image rotavirus as it becomes active. Dr. Kelly developed a special chip to hold live rotavirus, so it could be imaged with minimal interference.

Cardiac Cell Communication in Children

As children grow older, they can encounter other health problems, such as sudden cardiac death. Dr. Steven Poelzing studies the often fatal condition, in which spread of electrical activity across the heart is interrupted or stops abruptly. Dr. Poelzing and his team hypothesis that cell communication becomes hindered, stopping the electrical activity. There might be a genetic disposition that makes a particular person more susceptible to the condition, but Dr. Poelzing's continued research indicates that extracellular conditions might help tip the scales from minor to catastrophic events. Once scientists understand exactly how cardiac cells communicate, they might be able to develop a therapy to prevent such death.

Developing Diagnostics for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Still other faculty members take cutting-edge computational and functional brain imaging approaches to understand how children interact.

Dr. Read Montague, for example, directs studies that aim to provide precise and definitive diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders and to evaluate the effectiveness of therapies. His research might aid clinicians in their ability to precisely diagnose patients. Dr. Montague also strives to develop diagnostic techniques that are as quick and easy for the child to complete as possible.

Brain Development and Rehabilitation

Dr. Michael Friedlander, the institute’s executive director, leads research into the biological mechanisms of how the brain’s cerebral cortex processes, learns, and stores information. He seeks both to understand how early life experiences shape those processes and to devise new ways to rehabilitate brain regions damaged by injury.

Dr. Friedlander's examines the fundamental ingredients of neural connections, and how plasticity might be encouraged to compensate for injury or disease.

Team Leaders in Children’s Health

Stephanie DeLuca, PhD
Brooks King-Casas, PhD
Sarah McDonald, PhD
Konark Mukherjee, PhD
Steven Poelzing, PhD
Craig Ramey, PhD
Sharon Ramey, PhD

The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute integrates biomedical, behavioral, and computational sciences to develop new approaches to major diseases and disorders throughout the human lifespan. The Institute’s researchers transcend conventional disciplinary boundaries as they invent new strategies for preventing, diagnosing, and treating such challenges as:

• addiction and substance abuse
• autism spectrum disorders
• cancer
• cerebral palsy
• child neglect
• chromosomal abnormalities
• depression
• epilepsy and seizure disorders
• heart developmental disorders
• infectious diseases
• mental retardation
• neuropsychiatric disorders
• post-traumatic stress disorder
• stroke in utero
• traumatic brain injury

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