Experts at Southampton’s neonatal unit are using body wraps filled with cold water to prevent brain damage in newborn babies.
If the blood supply between mother and baby becomes obstructed or cut – known as perinatal asphyxia – the baby could become severely deprived of oxygen.
This lack of oxygen sets off an inflammatory response in the brain cells that can lead to serious illness, including cerebral palsy or, in some cases, prove fatal.
But staff in the neonatal intensive care unit at the Princess Anne Hospital, led by consultants Dr Robert Ironton and Dr Vijay Baral, identify babies at risk, attach a cold body wrap and connect them to a hi-tech cooling machine.
The body temperature is then dropped from the normal 37° to 33.5° and hypothermia is maintained for around 72 hours before the baby is gradually warmed back to normal.
It is believed that cooling the body of an at-risk baby within six hours of birth, in addition to standard intensive care treatment, gives the brain time to recover by limiting inflammation and slowing the body’s energy needs.
Launch of the system follows recent studies from a range of countries that suggest cooling limits the severity of brain injury in asphyxiated babies.
By slowing down the body’s system for a three-day period and slowly bringing it back up to the normal temperature, cooling halts the march of brain cells deprived of oxygen towards irreversible injury and cell death.
Dr Baral said: “Perinatal asphyxia is a leading cause of neonatal deaths but increasingly we are seeing evidence that shows baby cooling limits brain injury and improves neurological outcomes.
“It is standard practice in many larger hospitals across the world and we are delighted to now be able to provide this new service for babies in Southampton.”
Research published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine last month found that full-term babies who were compromised at birth were more likely to survive without significant brain injury if their bodies were cooled when compared to those who received standard intensive care treatment only.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is considering the recommendation of cooling as standard treatment following perinatal asphyxia.
Posted on Wednesday 25 November 2009