An exciting new Action Medical Research project is to research the amazing flexibility of children’s brains.
Dr Torsten Baldeweg of The Institute of Child Health at University College, London is particularly interested in the way that a child can compensate for brain damage by switching functions to different parts of the brain.
He is hoping that his work will mean better identification of problems, which will allow support and treatment to be given to the child sooner, thereby reducing the number of children suffering from difficulties in later life.
Dr Baldeweg is particularly keen to address the brain damage that some babies suffer as a result of premature birth – since 10,000 babies are born at less than 32 weeks of gestation every year and of these ten to fifteen percent will develop major neurological impairments.
A further 20 to 30 percent will have difficulties with behaviour or learning, including reading or understanding speech or grammar.
The team will be scanning the brains of a group of children between the ages of ten and sixteen who were born prematurely and have some brain injury. The first scan will use radio frequency waves inside a magnetic field to map the structure of the brain, and a second scan will measure the blood flow and blood movement within the brain.
These are called ‘functional scans’, because the children are asked to carry out activities – listening to, or forming speech - whilst the scan is in progress to highlight the areas of the brain used during the exercise of that function.
Dr Baldeweg is fascinated by the immense plasticity and resilience of a child’s brain, and its ability to compensate for damage by switching functions to different parts of the brain, or from the left to the right hand side.
He believes that by the age of ten, these changes will be apparent. The scans will identify where and what the damage was, and how the brain is exercising the recovered function.
This exciting new project at The Institute of Child Health at University College London and University College Medical School combines the skills of both neurologists and speech therapists and could dramatically affect the lives of many children born too early.
Dr Baldeweg said, ”It’s still a mystery why some children recover functions, while others struggle.
“We are looking to find out whether this is something systematic, or whether there are other factors at work that need further research.
“We hope that in a few years we will have accurate diagnostic tools such that we can identify through scans the newly born infant who have suffered this kind of damage, and offering counselling and speech therapy, for example, much earlier than we do at present.”
Andrew Proctor of Action Medical Research said, “This groundbreaking study is interesting because it seeks to isolate one of the effects of premature birth, so that it can be identified earlier and the child given much more support to overcome any difficulties as soon as possible.
“This is one of our Touching Tiny Lives projects, which are urgently looking to find answers to premature birth and pregnancy complications.
“Ten percent of babies need some kind of special care when they are born – we think this is too many and that babies are dying unnecessarily because too little money is invested in projects like this.
“More research is needed to ensure that all babies, especially babies born prematurely, grow up healthy and get the best chance in life.
“Our Touching Tiny Lives Campaign is looking to raise £3m to fund vital projects whilst highlighting the urgent need for more research.”
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