Each year in New Zealand around 5000 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 be diagnosed with cerebral palsy, an irreversible condition affecting movement and posture.
Advances in perinatal care have 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 children with neurological or physical disability.
Associate Professor Mhoyra Fraser has been awarded a Cure Kids grant to investigate what happens in the fetal or newborn brain when it experiences oxygen deprivation. Earlier studies have shown that specialised cells known as oligodendrocytes are damaged during an insult to the brain. These cells insulate neurons, allowing them to receive and transmit messages. If they can be preserved, it may be possible to prevent or even reverse preterm brain injury.
In a preclinical model, Fraser and her team are examining the effects of an intranasal therapy on the survival and proliferation of these oligodendrocytes. The team will use immunostaining to detect the number of these specialised cells as well as their stage of development.
This study represents an important stage of the treatment’s lifecycle, and hopefully, within time, will be an effective treatment for vulnerable preterm babies.