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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 October 2005, 23:53 GMT 00:53 UK
Child brain-repair study launched
Premature baby
Up to 30% of premature babies have reading or speech problems
Scientists are to study the brains of children born prematurely to see how they adapt after damage.

Some 10,000 babies are born prematurely each year in the UK and up to 15% will have some neurological impairment.

However, children's brains are known to be able to switch functions to different areas.

The Institute of Child Health team will spend three years studying 60 children aged 10 to 16 to see what changes occurred in their brains.

In addition to more serious impairments, 20 to 30% of children born prematurely will have difficulties with behaviour or learning, including reading or understanding speech or grammar.

Differences 'a mystery'

Dr Torsten Baldeweg, who investigates brain injury from a range of causes including epilepsy and stroke in children, is leading the study.

Finding new ways to identify brain damage earlier in these vulnerable infants may help to reduce some of the difficulties they can face later in life
Spokeswoman for Bliss premature baby charity

He hopes the study, funded by Action Medical Research, will mean better identification of the problems which can affect children, and what kind of support and assistance help children's development the most.

Dr Baldeweg hopes this will help reduce the number of children who experience difficulties in later life.

In the study, researchers will use two types of scans to analyse brain function.

The first (magnetic resonance imaging or MRI) scan will use radio frequency waves inside a magnetic field to map the structure of the brain.

The second scan (functional MRI or fMRI) will measure the blood flow and blood movement within the brain while children carry out activities such as listening to, or forming speech.

Other factors

Dr Baldeweg said, "It's still a mystery why some children recover functions, while others struggle.

"We are looking to find out whether this is something systematic, or whether there are other factors at work that need further research.

"We hope that in a few years we will have accurate diagnostic tools so that we can identify through scans the newly born infants who have suffered this kind of damage, and offer counselling and speech therapy, for example, much earlier than we do at present."

Ten percent of babies need some kind of special care when they are born - we think this is too many
Andrew Proctor
Action Medical Research

He added: "If these sorts of injuries happened in adults, it would be a catastrophe.

"But it's not in children, who go on to live perfectly normal lives - although some have severe problems and others less serious ones."

Andrew Proctor, of Action Medical Research, said: "This groundbreaking study is interesting because it seeks to isolate one of the effects of premature birth, so that it can be identified earlier and the child given much more support to overcome any difficulties as soon as possible."

He added: "Ten percent of babies need some kind of special care when they are born - we think this is too many and that babies are dying unnecessarily because too little money is invested in projects like this."

A spokeswoman for the premature baby charity Bliss said: "This is a very welcome piece of research which could have a significant impact on the quality of life of the 80,000 babies born prematurely or sick in the UK each year.

"Finding new ways to identify brain damage earlier in these vulnerable infants may help to reduce some of the difficulties they can face later in life."




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