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Last Updated: Monday, 5 December 2005, 00:03 GMT
Pill hope for water on the brain
A supplement may change the biochemistry of brain fluid
Researchers believe a dietary supplement taken during pregnancy could cut the risk of hydrocephalus - but are keeping precise details under wraps.

The condition, known as water on the brain, is often deadly, and survivors can have impaired brain development.

It was thought this was due to damage caused by fluid accumulation, but work by Manchester and Lancaster Universities challenges this theory.

They believe the key could be changes to the fluid's chemical composition.

However, the researchers are not giving more details of the supplement at this stage while further research is carried out.

The abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid within cavities called ventricles inside the brain
Affects one child in every 500 live births in the UK and US
This rises to one in every 100 births in the developing world

But they hope their work will eventually lead not only to a reduced risk of hydrocephalus, but also new treatments for those who survive with the condition.

Parents of children suffering from the condition in the US have raised money to pay for the next stage of the investigation.

The money will fund a lab at the University of Central Florida, which will be staffed by the UK teams.

There is currently no unequivocal prenatal diagnosis test or satisfactory treatment for hydrocephalus other than surgical diversion of the fluid through a tube, known as a shunt, from the brain to the abdomen or heart.

However, shunts are permanent and prone to infection and blockage, which means patients may require several operations during their lifetime.

Lead researcher Dr Jaleel Miyan said: "This procedure is based on the established clinical view that this fluid is nothing more than a mechanical support system within the skull with little, if any, physiological properties and that hydrocephalus is simply a build-up of excess cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.

"But our studies have shown that the condition may in fact cause a change in the composition of the fluid, and that it is this chemical change that prevents normal cell division, resulting in arrested brain development."

Correction hope

Dr Miyan said tests had shown that it might be possible to correct this problem, using a dietary supplement during pregnancy.

If the research yields further positive results it could mean an end to surgical intervention to treat the condition.

Dr Carole Sobkowiak, president of the Society for Research into Hydrocephalus & Spina Bifida, said the research was exciting and potentially far reaching.

She said: "It is the first real potential breakthrough in the treatment of hydrocephalus which is a condition that can seriously affect brain development.

"If successful then such advances in research would allow babies to have a more normal development of their brains.

"In order to reach this goal however, it is planned that the safety procedures are robust and will need to be checked rigorously."

However, Dr Hazel Jones, honorary secretary of the Society, stressed the research was only at the hypothesis stage.

"To give out false hopes to people with children suffering from hydrocephalus is premature," she said.

Andrew Russell, executive director of the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, said a new treatment for the condition would be highly significant, as the number of babies surviving with hydrocephalus was rising.

He said at present most survivors showed signs of impaired brain function, such as poor memory or organisational skills.

Physical symptoms can include poor walking gait.

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