could medicine prevent brain injuries in premature babies

Babies born prematurely are often at a greater risk of suffering birth injuries, especially brain injuries. Now, scientists are finally beginning to understand why brain injuries are so common in premature babies. More importantly, researchers also believe they are close to finding ways to prevent and treat those birth injuries.

If their research is correct, the medical advances could eventually help reduce the number of babies who suffer from cerebral palsy, epilepsy or behavioral disorders. We’ve written several posts about the trauma parents in Pittsburgh face when their babies become the victims of birth injuries. Now, researchers are finding ways to change that.

More than 60,000 babies are born each year weighing less than 3.3 pounds. While doctors are able to keep many of those babies alive, they have been largely unsuccessful at preventing brain damage. The chief of neonatology at one university said, “That means that overall rates of cerebral palsy and other neurodevelopmental disabilities are on the rise.”

When babies are born prematurely, the greatest threat for brain injuries comes from a lack of oxygen in the days and weeks after they are born. Babies who are born earlier than six months are at the greatest risk. The neonatal chief said babies at that age are very fragile and vulnerable to stresses.

One researcher from the Children’s National Medical Center said that the most critical time period for preventing brain injuries is immediately after a baby is born. During that brief window, doctors need to determine whether the brain is receiving enough oxygen. If hypoxia occurs — if the brain is starved of oxygen — permanent brain injury may be the inevitable result.

Researchers are studying drugs to determine whether it is possible to intervene during that critical time period. Animal trials have shown positive results, and researchers believe that if they are successful, the drugs could be used on patients of any age who suffer from brain injuries. Unfortunately, we are likely still years away from the commercial availability of a drug that would effectively reduce the risk of brain injury in premature babies.

Any new medicine takes time to develop, but hopefully the researchers will continue working aggressively to find a cure for brain injuries. In the meantime, it is extremely important that doctors closely monitor the condition of any child born prematurely, with particular emphasis on detecting signs of hypoxia prior to or after delivery. If a child’s condition is not properly monitored or signs of fetal distress or hypoxia are ignored and a severe birth injury results, we must hold those involved responsible for their negligence.

Source: NPR, “Why Brain Injuries Are More Common In Preemies,” Jon Hamilton, Nov. 17, 2011

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