Making Headway on Brain Disorders

We’re intent on curing disorders in the developing brain – and not just treating symptoms – by ferreting out root causes.

Max, mom, and Beck

Erin Cordry (center) and her sons Max Hanson, 23, (left) and Beck Hanson, 14, are invested in our work to find the root causes for conditions affecting kids’ developing brains – and develop better treatments and cures. Max was treated at Seattle Children’s for a brain tumor in 2004, and Beck receives therapy here for ADHD and OCD.

In January 2004, Max Hanson, 8, came home from basketball practice with a horrible headache. Within a week, more headaches with vomiting ended his season; less than a month later, he was diagnosed at Seattle Children’s with a cancerous tumor the size of a golf ball at the base of his skull.

Fast forward to 2013 when Beck Hanson, Max’s younger brother, was about to celebrate his ninthbirthday. “The only gift he wanted from friends coming to his party was hand sanitizer,” recalls Erin Cordry, the boys’ mom. “At the time we kind of thought it was funny; like, ‘out of our three kids, he’s our quirky one.’”

But when Beck’s hands bled because he washed them so often and he refused to go out to dinner or touch anything at school because he feared germs, he was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  

Two brothers. Two separate types of brain issues. One three-pound puzzle: What happened in Max and Beck’s brains to create these different conditions?

Connecting the dots

Neurosciences researchers at Seattle Children’s are doggedly trying to put the puzzle pieces together by uncovering the root causes – and the connections – of diseases and disorders affecting the brain.

What they’re learning is that a single category of brain disorder is far more diverse than previously thought. For example, epilepsy is now known to have more than 40 different variants. New imaging tools and advances in the fields of genomics and genetics are helping scientists identify these variants – as well as the role genes play in causing and interacting with brain disorders.

Nino Ramirez

Dr. Nino Ramirez leads a team of researchers at Seattle Children’s Center for Integrative Brain Research who are bringing greater understanding of epilepsy, autism, mental health, brain tumor and brain injury.

Disruptions to healthy brain development aren’t just genetic: injuries or environmental triggers are also to blame. Whatever the cause, any disruption – from a stroke to a tumor to a concussion – has the potential to impact a child’s life far beyond the initial medical treatment and recovery. For instance, a child who has a brain tumor may develop seizures. A child with epilepsy may experience depression or be diagnosed with autism. A child with an acute brain injury such as a stroke or brain infection may – a year later – suffer from poor attention or anxiety.

Dr. Nino Ramirez, who leads Seattle Children’s Center for Integrative Brain Research, says he and his colleagues across the organization are focused on moving beyond treating symptoms to understanding root causes – and customizing treatment for each individual patient.

“Two kids like Max and Beck may present with different symptoms yet have cellular disruptions in similar biological pathways,” explains Ramirez. “The same disrupted pathway can cause a cancerous tumor in one child and other neurologic or psychiatric disorders in another child. How a given disruption leads to autism, epilepsy, a brain tumor or an impulse control disorder depends on how the cells differentiate into specific cell types, whether the disruption makes cells over- or under-active, where the cells travel and in what region of the brain they reside.”

Philanthropy fuels progress

When Cordry thinks back to each of her sons’ diagnoses, she says as much as she learned from Max’s journey, she learned even more helping Beck. “Max will have side effects from his treatment for brain cancer for the rest of his life, but Beck carries the added cultural stigma around OCD. Very few people recognize the complexity of what will also be a lifetime struggle for him.”

Her boys are the reason Cordry said yes in spring 2018 when asked to co-chair a fundraising initiative to unlock the mysteries of the developing brain – one of the core pillars of It Starts With Yes: The Campaign for Seattle Children’s.

“I want to do what I can to help usher in a new era of understanding about how brain disorders originate and how to treat them at their source,” she says. “We have great researchers doing groundbreaking science, and it’s philanthropy that will accelerate our ability to find the root causes of conditions affecting kids’ developing brains.”

Connection, Winter 2019