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Thursday, 13 October 2005

Infants whose brains are starved of oxygen at birth stand a better chance of surviving without damage if their body temperatures are chilled by 3.5 degrees Celsius for three days, a new study says.

"This is the first treatment that we have to reduce the brain injury in these children," one of the study's authors, Seetha Shankaran of Michigan's Wayne State University, said.

She estimates that the cooling, which should be initiated within hours after birth, could prevent many cases of death, blindness and other disabilities in the 1,700 full-term infants born in the United States each year whose brains are temporarily cut off from blood or oxygen.

Typically, up to 20 per cent of such babies die soon after delivery.

Another 25 per cent are left disabled.

The findings are "extremely promising, says Duane Alexander, the director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development which funded the study.

But the technique is not ready for widespread use.

Further tests, including assessments of surviving children when they enter school, are needed to confirm the benefits.

And although the equipment to cool a baby and monitor its temperature costs about $A7,950, most hospitals are not set up for the continuous monitoring needed.

Lu-Ann Papile of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Centre, in an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine, agreed that widespread use of brain cooling "would be premature".

When the brain lacks enough oxygen, it sparks a cascade of harmful chemical reactions that can inflict further damage even after oxygen has been restored.

Professor Shankaran said treatments used by doctors to try to save the baby can also produce toxins.

Cooling the brain "actually decreases the production of these substances" and gives it time to recover.

- Reuters

ABC News Online

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