GW Researchers Receive $6.2 million NIH Grant to Research Pediatric Dysphagia

Faculty from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences will join Children’s National scientists to study the feeding and swallowing disorder.

Anthony LaMantia
Anthony LaMantia, director of the GW Institute for Neurosciences, will direct the Program Project Grant.
March 23, 2015

An interdisciplinary group of researchers from the George Washington University and Children’s National Health System have received $6.2 million to better understand the pathology and treatment for pediatric dysphagia—a chronic difficulty with feeding and swallowing commonly found in children with neurodevelopmental disorders.

The funding awarded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) is the first Program Project Grant (PPG) the university has received in more than 20 years.

“Our combined expertise in circuit function, cranial and facial development, and genetics, along with our ability to creatively come together, and strong institutional support, makes this team the ideal group to meet this challenge,” said Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, director of the GW Institute for Neurosciences and professor of pharmacology and physiology in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Dr. LaMantia will direct the PPG and Sally Moody, professor of anatomy and regenerative biology at SMHS, will serve as associate director.

“Working together over the last several years, we have become incredibly committed to solving this major clinical issue and biological mystery,” Dr. LaMantia said.

Dysphagia is found in 35 to 80 percent of newborns with neurodevelopmental disorders. Due to these difficulties, these children suffer from a number of consequences such as failure to gain weight, malnutrition, acute choking, food aspiration and pneumonia. Studies suggest that the prevalence of pediatric dysphagia is increasing due to improved survival rates of children born prematurely.

Current treatments focus only on symptom relief, often taking away precious time and resources that could be dedicated to cognitive and social development, according to Dr. LaMantia. There are no cures or preventative strategies for pediatric dysphagia.

“The expertise and innovative thinking of the team assembled by Dr. LaMantia could well be the key to improving the lives of thousands of children and their families," said Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa.

After developing the first valid model for pediatric dysphagia, this research team will provide fundamental understanding of the disorder by defining the pathology, developmental origins and approaches for prevention. The PPG will be divided into three projects, led by three project investigators:

  • David Mendelowitz, vice chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology at SMHS, will lead research to determine contributions of disrupted brainstem neural circuits versus oro-pharyngeal mechanics to pediatric dysphagia. He is joined in this effort by GW researchers Norman Lee, Thomas Maynard and Anastas Popratiloff.
  • Dr. LaMantia will lead research on how the pathology of pediatric dysphagia arises during development of the embryonic hindbrain and how these early disruptions establish changes in neural circuits for feeding and swallowing.
  • Irene Zohn, associate professor of pediatrics at SMHS and researcher at Children’s National, will lead research on how neural circuit or oro-pharyngeal pathology can be prevented by restoring disrupted development to normal status via maternal nutrition.

These investigators and others associated with the program will collaborate with researchers at the University of Maryland. The group also will work closely with clinicians at Children’s National to bring their findings directly to the children who need them. Children’s National is one of the 15 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Centers in the United States whose goals are to advance understanding of a variety of conditions and topics related to intellectual and developmental disabilities.