December 8, 2021

Spotlight on: Child health researcher Babak Afsharipour

Babak Afsharipour

Photo: WCHRI

Babak Afsharipour, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is examining the development of spinal cord circuits in children with cerebral palsy and working to help develop rehabilitative treatments for children with this motor disability. 

You were one of WCHRI’s inaugural postdoctoral fellows in 2019. What did your project examine? 

My project is related to children with cerebral palsy—a movement disorder caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the brain. It causes muscle weakness and problems in movement such as keeping balance, maintaining posture and the ability to move your legs in general. 

When we talk about movement, we need to talk about the muscles, muscle fibres and cells that are connected to motor neurons and neuron cells in the spinal cord that control the activity of these muscles. My project examined the development of important ion channels—voltage-gated tunnels that only allow ions of a certain sized charge to pass through a membrane—that drive the activity of neurons in the spinal cord that control the muscles of the limbs. We will use this information to understand how these motor neurons are affected in cerebral palsy during development and how they contribute to spasticity—abnormal muscle tightness—and problems with motor control in this disorder. 

Are there any outcomes from your postdoctoral fellowship research that you’re able to share?

We have observed that during normal development, the excitability of these ion channels is high in children from ages seven to 12  before plateauing at around age 24. We found that in young children, the way that commands from the brain move down the body to recruit and activate motor neurons is different than in adolescents and adults and may explain why skilled movement becomes easier to control starting in the teenage years. We also discovered that drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression can also increase the activation of these motor neurons which may contribute to some of the motor side effects, like tremors, seen with these drugs. 

We are just starting to recruit children and young adults with cerebral palsy to see if changes in the way these motor neurons are recruited and activated follows a more delayed or reduced developmental profile. 

So far we have observed that people with cerebral palsy may rely more on recruiting new motor neurons, rather than controlling how fast these neurons send signals to the muscles. This may explain, in part, why controlling muscles is more difficult in cerebral palsy. 

What impact do you hope your fellowship project makes and how is your research contributing to improving the health of children?

Understanding how motor neurons and these ion channels are controlled during natural movement in cerebral palsy will give us insight as to where the control problems are. We can use this information to understand how rehabilitation therapies might change, how these motor neurons are activated and if this is associated with better clinical motor outcomes. 

Have you always been interested in this area of research, or was there a catalyst that piqued your interest? 

I really enjoy working with children! I have a background in biomedical engineering and this really drove my passion and interest into doing research related to muscle and movement disorders.

Your fellowship ended in January; what are you doing now?

I am working on a new research project that will be focusing on the injection of botox in children with cerebral palsy. Injecting botox into the spastic muscle will make the muscle relax. However, the injection site is very specific and we are looking to uncover the best way to guide clinicians to the optimal injection site and to reduce the amount of toxins and other side effects of this treatment. Fortunately, we received support from the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI for this project, and we will start recruiting children with cerebral palsy so we can begin this work. 

Why do you think it’s important to invest in children’s health research? 

There is still a wide knowledge gap in children’s health research. We need to have targeted therapies specialized for children as one prescription does not fit all. For example, with the work that I am currently doing, the clinician needs to take the anatomy of a child into consideration when injecting botox into spastic muscle tissue. Ultimately, if we want to start answering these questions and formulating solutions then investing and supporting children’s health research is incredibly important. 

What does the support of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation mean to you?

It means investment in serving children better. It is an investment in research, people, equipment and finding better ways to treat children with difficulties. It provides an excellent opportunity to target complex and challenging cases in the children’s health care field and step forward toward individual-based therapy plans. 

Read more about Babak Afsharipour’s postdoctoral fellowship project.