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Research to reduce the number of babies suffering brain damage

15 September 2017
Research to reduce the number of babies suffering brain damage

The Centre for the Developing Brain undertakes ground-breaking research to understand human brain development, with the aim of reducing the number of babies who suffer brain damage at the earliest stages of life.

We’re hopeful that our methods can be used further to enhance our understanding of brain function before birth

– Dr Tomoki Arichi

Recent work by the Centre found, for the first time, a gene related to brain damage in pre-term infants. This type of brain damage can lead to lifelong conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism or learning or behavioural difficulties in up to 30 per cent of pre-term babies.

‘We hope to provide a new avenue to understand how brain damage is caused so that scientists can work towards more effective treatments for diseases such as autism and cerebral palsy, by stopping or even preventing the inflammation associated with pre-term birth,’ said Professor David Edwards, Director of the Centre for the Developing Brain.

The discovery may open doors for research into more effective treatments of these diseases. The gene, known as DLG4, is found in different forms in all humans but previously was thought only to play a role in the function of the nervous system. The new finding suggests it is also involved in the process of brain damage in some pre-term babies.

Another recent paper led by Dr Michelle Krishnan and Professor David Edwards built further on the understanding of genes and brain damage in premature babies. The study used machine learning to analyse brain scans and found an association between the PPARG gene and altered connectivity in the brain.

The finding suggests that this particular gene may also be linked to the abnormal brain development often seen in babies born prematurely. This paper provides avenues for further research focusing on potential ways of adapting an existing safe drug for the treatment of babies suffering from brain damage. This drug is currently used to target the PPARG gene as a treatment for diabetic patients but these new findings could have clinical implications with further investigation.

Researchers from the Centre have also identified the source of spontaneous, high-amplitude bursts of activity seen in the brains of preterm babies, which are vital for healthy development. This activity is essential to strengthen brain connections which will serve as ‘scaffolding’ that will then develop further with life experience.

Using a pioneering technique, they found a specific brain region called the insula that plays a major role in the generation of the spontaneous neuronal bursts. Other studies have found that infants whose brains don’t display this activity are more likely to develop cerebral palsy or have poor cognitive skills later in life.

Dr Tomoki Arichi, Clinical Senior Lecturer in the Centre for the Developing Brain worked on the study: ‘Most research in early brain development focuses on structures instead of functions, so we’re hopeful that our methods can be used further to enhance our understanding of brain function before birth.’

The Centre has also published ground-breaking scans of newborn babies’ brains which researchers from all over the world can download and use to study how the human brain develops. The images are part of the Developing Human Connectome Project (dHCP), a collaboration between King’s College London, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford.

Find out more about the Centre for the Developing Brain on the website.

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