What is the problem and who does it affect?
Each year in New Zealand around 500 babies are born preterm. The earlier a baby is born, the greater the risk he or she has of developing brain injury. Around half of the very preterm babies will have neurological and cognitive deficits that affect their daily life. Some of these babies will be diagnosed with cerebral palsy, an irreversible condition affecting movement and posture.
Advances in perinatal care has seen impressive increases in the survival of preterm babies, but our ability to prevent the resulting disability has sadly not kept pace. The implication of this disparity is a greater number of kids with chronic neurological or physical disability.
What is this project hoping to achieve?
Researchers at the University of Auckland, led by Associate Professor Mhoyra Fraser, are investigating what happens in the fetal or newborn brain when it experiences hypoxia (oxygen deprivation). Using a well-characterised preclinical model, A/Prof Fraser and team will study the resulting effects of hypoxia.
The brain is effectively a series of electrical networks, conveying messages to one another. This network dwarfs any tactile network, with estimates of the number neurons in the human brain being in the tens of billions. Put simply, the brain is inordinately complex.
Earlier studies have shown that specialised cells known as oligodendrocytes are damaged during an insult on the brain. Oligodendrocytes produce a fatty substance known as myelin. This substance serves the purpose of insulating neurons, allowing them to effectively receive and transmit messages. It follows that any damage to these myelin-producing cells influences the functioning of the brain. If these cells can be preserved, it may be possible to prevent or even reverse preterm brain injury.
Fraser and team are examining the effects of an intranasal therapy on the survival and proliferation of oligodendrocytes. To detect the number of oligodendrocytes, as well as where they lie on the spectrum of immature or fully developed, the team will use immunostaining. This enables the researchers to easily differentiate cells under microscopy.
Any therapy, before it is adequate for clinical use, must undergo investigation as to its ability to show a real effect, as well as the safety of the treatment. This study represents an important stage in a treatment’s lifecycle, and hopefully, within time, will be an effective treatment for vulnerable preterm babies.
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