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Research into brain injury in pregnancy should create better outcomes for children

Lindsay Holt
A new study from the University of California has mapped the neural connections of newborn babies to investigate two different kinds of brain injuries in the hope of highlighting developmental outcomes for children as they grow up.

The study, published in the medical journal PLOS ONE, used diffusion MRI to visualise the brain wiring of two sets of newborns - one with congenital heart defects (CHD) and the other with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) – also known as birth asphyxia. Birth asphyxia is unfortunately often a result of delayed delivery of a baby in distress that medical teams fail to diagnose and react to quickly enough.

HIE babies tend to suffer brain injury and oxygen deprivation during and immediately following birth, while CHD babies are steadily deprived of oxygen for longer in utero. Both groups are known to be at high risk for neurodevelopmental disabilities as they grow older, in areas ranging from motor skills to attention to behavioural issues. What the study found was that the brains of these two sets of babies looked very different.

Clear were the distinct differences in brain wiring between the groups that correlated to motor and language outcomes later. Specifically, they found the CHD newborns had worse language function at 12-18 months and worse cognitive, language and motor function at 30 months than the infants born with HIE, whose outcomes at both time points were in the normal range.

The main difference between the CHD and HIE brains was in an area called 'global efficiency', which measures how easy it is for a connection to be made from one area of the brain to the other. According to the researchers, an efficient brain resembles 'a traffic system with an ideal balance of highways and local roads that take a driver where they need to go quickly'.

Although more research is needed, and is pending, the hope is that by understanding how the brain connections work and match to developmental outcomes, researchers will be able to link children with brain injuries to early intervention more quickly. Eventually, children may even have treatments tailored to their type of brain injury.

Find out more about birth injury claims.

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