Preterm infants are often put into incubators to keep them warm, helping their survival and well-being. But could cooling down babies suffering brain injury actually be beneficial, particularly those born early?
Around 7 to 8% of all births in New Zealand are preterm, and these infants are at greater risk of brain injury than those born at full term. Perinatal brain injury caused before birth due to oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) can lead to long-term dramatic impairment of normal brain development.
The University of Auckland’s Alistair Gunn developed the “cool cap” for use in term infants, and it has been found safe and effective and is now in everyday clinical use. However, it is not yet available clinically for preterm infants. Together with Laura Bennet, Alistair Gunn (pictured above, Image: HRC) is looking at ways to stop the spread of hypoxia in preterm infants, including the use of stem cells. It is not yet known how these stem cells could help the brain repair after hypoxia, it may be that they help the brain create new brain cells, or it may be that the brain uses these cells to replace missing brain cells, or the cells may release growth factors telling the brain to create new cells. It is also important to know the timing of injury and whether an infant is within the “window of opportunity” for treatment and a clinical trial at Auckland Hospital will follow a group of preterm babies to see if this can be identified.