Cooling newborn babies suffering lack of oxygen at birth significantly reduces their risk of brain damage, landmark research reveals.
A study involving babies from Yorkshire and across the country found 52 per cent of youngsters treated with hypothermia had an IQ of 85 or above aged six compared to 39 per cent given standard care. Cooling significantly reduced the chance of children suffering from cerebral palsy and other disabilities.
But the research, involving specialists at Leeds University, found no difference in death rates of around 30 per cent.
Malcolm Levene, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics at Leeds University, said: “This research is a culmination of more than 20 years of planning and collaboration and represents a major advance in the prevention of brain damage from this tragic condition, which previously was resistant to all forms of treatment.
“Children who would have been irreversibly brain damaged are now surviving undamaged as a result of this treatment.”
The trial, led jointly by the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University and Imperial College London, is the largest of its kind and the first to show improved brain function in children in later life, who were treated using this method.
Before the trial, there was limited information on the beneficial effect of cooling after asphyxia beyond the age of 18 months. The latest work is important because it demonstrates that the improvements in brain function are not just temporary.
Scientists tested the children’s mental abilities and performance at school, looked at parent and teacher reports on behaviour and investigated the presence and severity of any disabilities that resulted from oxygen deprivation.
Lack of oxygen triggers processes leading to brain cell death and permanent neurological damage.
But hypothermia interrupts the processes to reduce brain injury and has consistently been shown to improve outcomes at 18 months. The study confirms treatment with cooling is safe and effective, and that the benefits persist in the long term.
The treatment has adopted into clinical practice in the NHS. Experts say it has the advantage of being relatively simple and inexpensive to
Prof Denis Azzopardi, of King’s College London and lead author of the research, said: “This study is important as it confirms improved neurological outcomes persisting into middle childhood with treatment with cooling and it is a proof of the concept that treatment following oxygen deprivation at birth can be effective.”
Hugh Perry, chair of the Medical Research Council’s Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, said: “This study is a great example of how research can change people’s lives. Although major advances have been made in how childbirth is managed, approximately two out of every 1,000 newborn infants suffer from a lack of oxygen around the time of birth. Prior to the introduction of cooling therapy there were no approved, specific treatments that reduced the risk of death or brain injury following asphyxia.”
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was funded by the Medical Research Council.