One very serious consequence of being born too soon is that the lungs are not mature enough to function properly. Proper function requires fully mature blood cells that can transport oxygen from the lungs to the brain.

In the case of premature babies, the immature lungs and blood cells affect a specific type of cell in the brain - the oligodendrocytes. These cells form myelin, which is a fatty substance that sheaths nerve fibers and acts as its insulation, much like the plastic casing surrounding electrical wires keeps the electrical cord safe and in proper working order. Nerve cells cannot communicate effectively when myelin is damaged or not being made.

Preemies born before week 32 of pregnancy are at highest risk of oxygen deprivation to the brain (perinatal hypoxia), which increases the risk of cerebral palsy and other motor skill dysfunctions. Giving preemies oxygen helps with breathing difficulties but it doesn’t do anything for oligodendrocytes that are damaged or dead due to lack of oxygen.

Neurologist Joseph Scafidi sees many children struggling with the lasting results of perinatal hypoxia in his practice at the Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC, but he may be on the right track to finding a way to overcome the damage.

Scafidi and his team of researchers have just published the findings of a study they conducted in which they used a substance called epidermal growth factor (EGF) on baby mice who suffered similar oxygen deprivation at birth. When the mice were given EGF via a nasal spray, their brains began to actively replace the damaged oligodendrocytes. The research team achieved the best results when EGF was administered soon after the injury (oxygen deprivation) occurred.

Vittorio Gallo, a member of the research team, describes the results as “really amazing.” When EGF was administered shortly after injury and repeated doses were given, the oxygen-deprived mice “looked identical to the mice that were not exposed to the injury.” The researchers say EGF therapy for human babies is still a long way away but best results are expected if a baby were treated within the first few weeks after birth.

This news is especially promising since it was achieved with a nasal spray, which is easy to administer to human babies.

There are other growth factors that might produce similar results but they are untested for this application at this time. The researchers suggest they be tested on adult patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) before testing it on premature babies. Deterioration of the myelin sheath insulating nerve fibers is the cause of MS.

Source: Scafidi, Joseph, et al. “Intranasal epidermal growth factor treatment rescues neonatal brain injury (abstract).” Nature. Nature Publishing Group / Macmillan Publishers Limited. Dec 25, 2014. Web. Jan 30, 2014.