U.Va. Pediatrics Professor Receives Fulbright Scholarship

December 2, 2009 — Dr. James Blackman, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia, has been awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholarship from the Australian-American Fulbright Commission to spend four months at the University of Queensland.

Blackman's Fulbright project will give him the opportunity to extend his research into the genetic factors that influence the severity of cerebral palsy. In particular, his focus is on the Apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene, and the possibility that it exerts a protective effect on the developing brain of children following brain injury.

"A better understanding of this gene and its relationship to cerebral palsy could lead to new therapies that might lessen the severity of the brain injury and improve functional motor outcomes in some patients," Blackman said.

Studies in Europe show adults who have suffered a head injury and have the APOE4 gene variant fare worse in their recovery than those who do not have the variant. Blackman said this appears the exact opposite in children, in that APOE4 may be protective after head injury.

"This may have something to with an immature brain," he explained.

Blackman did a pilot study with 158 individuals with cerebral palsy, where he evaluated their APOE status and the severity of their cerebral palsy. He found those individuals with the APOE4 gene had less severe cerebral palsy than those who had the other two forms of the APOE gene. Cerebral palsy is caused by brain injury before, during or shortly after birth.

"Cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability in childhood with a prevalence of about one in 500 persons. There is no known cure. Short of prevention, interruption or mitigation of the initial causative event is central to advancement in this field," Blackman said.

Through his Fulbright, Blackman will take advantage of a longitudinal study of cerebral palsy in Victoria and Queensland. The Victorian Cerebral Palsy Project is an ongoing prospective study of children with cerebral palsy funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia. This study follows children from 18 months of age until age 5. Blackman's role in this study is funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The Victorian and Queensland cohorts make up the largest and most extensively evaluated population-based sample of children with cerebral palsy ever studied. This project and its opportunity for collaboration are unavailable elsewhere in the world, Blackman said.

He explained that it at first seemed strange to him that a single gene would have different effects on a person depending on their time in life; however, it make sense when you consider how the human body has evolved over time.

"A gene that would help you survive and be healthy during your childhood years is designed to get you to reproductive years, and the gene doesn't care what happens after this," Blackman said. "Most people didn't live as long as we do now, and the genes haven't evolved as quickly as our life expectancy has grown."

Blackman has a bachelor's degree in psychology, an M.D. from Ohio State University and a master of public health degree from San Diego State University.

In addition to being professor of pediatrics, he is head of the Division of Developmental Pediatrics, director of the fellowship training program in Developmental Pediatrics, and the medical director of the Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center and Research Institute.

He has won various honors and fellowships, including the Hanlon Outstanding Public Health Graduate Award and a Mary E. Switzer Distinguished Fellowship from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. He has published widely, in both books and journals.

Blackman is one of 19 American Fulbright Scholars traveling to Australia in 2009-10.