During childbirth, the infant may spend a significant amount of time in the birth canal. If too much time passes, the infant may suffer from birth asphyxia. Birth asphyxia occurs when the brain does not get enough oxygen during childbirth. Currently, infants are cooled after birth to reduce the risk of brain damage from birth asphyxia, but cooling only helps a small portion of infants (1 in 9) and cannot be used on premature infants. Ylva Carlsson decided to look for a new treatment that could be used on premature infants and increased effectiveness across all births.

Brain damage due to birth asphyxia is associated with an enzyme that triggers cell death. Hours and days after suffering birth asphyxia, this enzyme affects cellular health in the brain. As more cells die, brain damage develops. Children suffering birth asphyxia can develop epilepsy, cerebral palsy and other developmental conditions.

Carlsson found the enzyme that causes cell death. With this knowledge, doctors may be able to control the enzyme in the future; reducing the risk of brain damage after birth asphyxia. According to Carlsson, “The results show that a reduction in the amount of this enzyme also reduces the extent of the brain damage. Added protection is given if cooling therapy is used too.”

Carlsson’s study is in the beginning stages. She used mice to study the effects of medications given to adults to treat brain damage on newborns with negative results. The adult medications increased the risk of brain damage, so clearly adult medications are not a viable treatment option. However, learning how adult medications interact with the infant brain is a step in the right direction. If researchers can rule out medications that are not effective, they can focus on avenues that may be more productive for infants. At the heart of treatment will be a medication that controls the cell death enzyme while allowing the brain to develop properly. Infant brain growth occurs quickly and adult medications inhibit brain develop. 

Source: Ylva Carlsson. University of Gothenburg. 25 October, 2011.