Wayne State University

Wayne State University researcher receives more than $800,000 to study potential biomarker for intellectual and developmental disabilities

DETROIT– A Wayne State University researcher is investigating whether a brain pathway responsible for language development can be used as a biomarker that distinguishes intellectually and developmentally disabled (IDD) children from those who are experiencing an atypical course of development and will later catch up to their peers.

Senthil Sundaram, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and neurology in WSU’s School of Medicine and the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Center of Children’s Hospital of Michigan and resident of Troy, Mich., received $816,541 for the five-year study. The study is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with the first two years of funding allocated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

One of the earliest manifestations of IDD is the delay of developmental milestones such as sitting, standing and talking. A significant fraction of children with developmental delay later catch up with their peers in what is known as an atypical course to normal development (AC), whereas others will be diagnosed with IDD. Despite many comprehensive diagnostic studies on the topic, there is currently no biomarker that can distinguish between IDD children and AC children.

This may soon change, however, with diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a magnetic resonance imaging technique that enables the viewing of individual pathways in the brain’s white matter. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, Sundaram used DTI to image a group of children with delayed development and found that a brain pathway associated with speech development was severely underdeveloped in approximately half of the group.

“We wanted to extend this finding to a sample group of younger children and see if the same abnormal brain pathways can be identified at an earlier age and if they are tied with IDD,” Sundaram said. In his current study, Sundaram will use DTI to track this language pathway in children ages 1 ½ to 3 years who are developmentally delayed. The study will follow the children for three years, observing whether those who had an underdeveloped language pathway were also the ones who were later diagnosed as IDD. Sundaram will also sequence his subjects’ DNA to detect any genes that potentially correlate with the underdevelopment of the language pathway.

If the speech pathway proves to be a biomarker, IDD could be diagnosed at an earlier age and may be subject to new methods of treatment. “Identifying a brain pathway that contributes to IDD means it may be possible to develop therapy that nurtures the development of the correct pathways,” Sundaram said. “Whether this treatment is in the form of speech therapy, occupational therapy or even with drugs is too early to be known, but a viable biomarker would put us on the path in that direction.”

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Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information on research at Wayne State University, visit http://www.research.wayne.edu.