Page last updated at 21:07 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 22:07 UK

Cooling 'cuts baby brain damage'

By Fergus Walsh
Medical correspondent, BBC News

Baby on cooling mat
This two-day-old baby is being cooled after being starved of oxygen...

Babies who are starved of oxygen at birth have a much lower risk of brain damage if they are given mild hypothermia, major research suggests.

More than 300 babies were involved in a trial carried out at 33 hospitals in the UK and in five other countries.

Researchers found full-term babies who suffered oxygen loss at birth were 57% more likely to survive without brain damage if their bodies were cooled.

The findings are published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The babies' body temperature was brought down by about 4C using a fluid-filled mat under their sheet.

Doctors are not exactly sure why it helps, but think that slowing their metabolism reduces the after-shocks of the birth trauma, giving the brain time to recover.

Starved of oxygen

Dr Denis Azzopardi, from Imperial College London and who led the trial, said: "The study builds on a 20-year body of research but gives, for the first time, irrefutable proof that cooling can be effective in reducing brain damage after birth asphyxia.

"Although unfortunately it doesn't work in every case, our study showed the proportion of babies that survived without signs of brain damage went from 28% to 44% with cooling treatments - that's a 57% increase."

Fergus Walsh is shown the cooling mat by co-chief investigator Dr Denis Azzopardi

Carmel Bartley, Family Support Manager from the children's charity Bliss, said: "This is very welcome research into an area which is known to save lives. Cooling of babies with birth asphyxia is an innovative technique already being used in some neonatal centres.

"This is a specialist treatment that we would like to see used more widely to ensure the very best outcomes for our most vulnerable babies."

The trial involved 325 full-term babies who had been starved of oxygen at birth.

Half of the newborn babies had their body temperature reduced to 33-34C (91-93F) for 72 hours followed by gradual re-warming in intensive care. Normal body temperature is around 37C (98F).

The study received nearly £1m of funding from the Medical Research Council and mostly involved hospitals in the UK, plus neonatal units in Ireland, Sweden Finland, Hungary and Israel.

Over to NICE

Becca Gallogly's daughter Emma is one of the babies in the group that was cooled. Emma is a bright and active four-year-old but when she was born she was dangerously ill after suffering oxygen loss.

Emma is now a bright and active four-year-old

Becca says she feels very fortunate that Emma is well: "Every day I thank my lucky stars that we've been as lucky as we have.

"For the first two years of her life we felt we were wishing a lot of it away, because we were so anxious for her to meet her next milestone and see how she developed.

"We were looking for problems and thankfully there weren't any."

The trial data will now be assessed by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) to see whether the technique should be rolled out to all neonatal units.

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