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Natural protection may reduce brain injury

11 September 2006

Natural protection may reduce brain injury at birth

The natural protective ability of babies’ brains may provide insights into preventing brain injury during birth, thanks to a grant from US charity March of Dimes.

The Fetal Physiology and Neuroscience group of The University of Auckland has been awarded a research grant by March of Dimes to study how the brain protects itself and if this can be manipulated to prevent or treat brain injury in babies.

Research at the University shows that during recovery from oxygen deprivation the preterm brain has in-built biochemical defences which help protect sick cells by reducing their energy demand. These natural defences are, however, overwhelmed by toxic brain chemicals released after oxygen lack. The March of Dimes project, one of only four projects funded by the charity in the Asia-Pacific region, examines experimentally whether augmenting the natural defences of the preterm brain can reduce injury.

Premature birth is associated with a very high rate of neurodevelopmental problems which may evolve from even the mildest brain injury sustained at birth, due to oxygen deprivation or infection. In the USA, around 12% of babies are born prematurely, and it has been estimated that the direct costs of caring for premature infants is double the direct costs of AIDS. In New Zealand, about 500 very premature infants are born each year and more than 80% of these survive. Brain injuries sustained at birth can cause a range of mental, social and developmental problems and currently there are no specific treatments for preterm brain injury.

“Brain injury is a very real problem for premature babies, and can cause major issues throughout the rest of their lives,” says Associate Professor Laura Bennet of the Fetal Physiology and Neuroscience group. “Looking at the innate protection of the brain will provide us with valuable knowledge in how best to use these natural defences to prevent and treat injuries at birth. We are pleased that March of Dimes has recognised the importance of this work.”


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