Page last updated at 17:25 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 18:25 UK

Cool baby invention 'a success'

Mock up of baby cooling mat
Bristol babies have been among the first to benefit from the new advance

A new technique - which was invented in Bristol - could stop thousands of babies from suffering brain damage at birth, clinical trials have shown.

Prof Marianne Thoresen, of St Michael's Hospital, developed cooling caps to stop the infants' brains from being damaged if they became oxygen-starved.

International trials, using a cooled mat to treat at-risk babies, have proved a major success.

Two Bristol hospitals took part in trials of the technique.

Prof Thoresen began work on the idea in her native Norway in 1992.

She had noticed that children who had fallen into icy waterways often avoided brain damage from oxygen starvation.

Slowly reheated

Two in every thousand live births in the UK are affected by asphyxia (oxygen starvation).

The condition can cause brain damage, cerebral palsy and even death.

Prof Thoresen continued her work from 1998 at the University of Bristol, in collaboration with Prof Andrew Whitelaw.

Cooling is arguably the most important advance in neonatal intensive care in the last decade
Prof Marianne Thoresen

Prof Thoresen said: "The initial trials using selective cooling of the head reported evidence of brain protection. However, cooling the whole body to 33 degrees is a much simpler technique than head cooling."

Babies are slowly reheated after being cooled.

Experts are not sure why the technique works, but they believe it is connected with the slowing of the child's metabolic rate.

The Bristol study was taken forward by a team, led by researchers at Kings College in London, and trialled extensively at 38 hospitals throughout Europe.

The cooling mat technique is now standard at Bristol's St Michael's and Southmead maternity units during asphyxia births with a system to transfer other at-risk infants from neighbouring hospitals.

The international study, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that at least 100 children's lives will be saved in the UK alone.

Prof Thoresen added: "Cooling is arguably the most important advance in neonatal intensive care in the last decade."

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