can a hormone treatment help fight brain damage among preemies

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that roughly one out of every eight babies in the U.S. are born prematurely, meaning they are born prior to the passage of 37 weeks of pregnancy. Put another way, this translates into roughly 500,000 premature births across the nation every year.

While the Mayo Clinic indicates that the majority of these preterm births occur in what can be considered the late preterm stage — between 34 to 37 weeks of pregnancy — a large number still occur during either the very preterm stage — less than 32 weeks of pregnancy — and the extremely preterm stage — less than 25 weeks of pregnancy.

The unfortunate reality is that children born prior to the passage of 32 weeks of pregnancy are at an elevated risk of serious medical conditions, including incomplete development of the brain and brain damage. Here, the latter is attributable to oxygen deprivation brought on by underdeveloped lungs and blood cells.

As you might imagine, this state of affairs leaves these premature babies susceptible to permanent developmental disabilities such as cognitive issues, attention problems and learning issues.

Fortunately, some hope may be on the horizon.

Two groups of scientists have recently completed separate studies designed to determine whether the administration of a hormone known as erythropoietin (EPO), designed to regulate red blood cell production in the body, can help prevent brain damage in those babies born dangerously premature.

  • Researchers at West Penn Hospital conducted a study of almost 500 premature babies, in which half were administered EPO shortly after birth and half were given a placebo. Subsequent MRIs of the study participants’ brains revealed that the babies who received EPO had less brain damage.
  • Researchers at the University of Geneva conducted a study of almost 165 premature babies, in which nearly half were administered EPO shortly after birth. Subsequent MRIs of the study participants’ brains revealed that the babies who received EPO had less brain damage.

Both sets of researchers were encouraged by their initial findings, but indicated that subsequent MRIs of the study participants would be necessary over the coming years to confirm that EPO played a role in preventing lasting brain damage.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that this use of EPO in premature babies has not been widely embraced by the entire medical community. Indeed, some physicians indicate that not only is it difficult to identify partial brain damage on an MRI, an area into which most premature babies fall, but that the use of EPO in infants is concerning due to its tendency to reduce white blood cell counts and predispose them to a degenerative eye condition.

It will be fascinating to see what these MRI scans reveal in the future. Stay tuned for updates.

If you believe that your child suffered an otherwise preventable birth injury because of the negligence of physicians, nurses or hospital staff, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible.

Source: KDKA, “New hormone treatment may reduce damage to brains of premature babies,” Maria Simbra, Sept. 10, 2014; The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Hormone might help preemies’ brains,” Steven Reinberg, Aug. 27, 2014

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