5 July 2001
Newcastle is leading pioneering medical research that could have lasting benefit for many babies born with a distressing brain condition.
Thanks to funding from leading medical research charity, Action Research, the team of researchers is hoping to make important steps in improving the treatment and management of hydrocephalus.
Hydrocephalus is an abnormal accumulation of fluid on the brain, commonly known as ‘water on the brain’, and its affects about one in 1,000 births. Although there are currently effective methods for treating the illness many problems associated with them still remain unsolved.
With backing of almost £50,000 from Action Research the scientists say the new two-year study could help improve the quality of life for many people.
Dr Kathryn Banister, based at the Regional Medical Physics Department at Newcastle’s General Hospital, says: ‘If successful, the research could help prevent patients, especially children, from developing disabilities and would be a major advance in the management of hydrocephalus.’
In most instances hydrocephalus is a lifelong condition and treatment often entails patients being fitted with a tube or device called a shunt. This drains excess fluid from their brain and into the bloodstream, which prevents the condition becoming worse.
Shunt surgery is one of the most common operations in many neurological centres - with almost 5,000 operations performed each year in the UK. However, shunts are not without their flaws, and about half of operations are to correct problems with a previous implant.
Dr Banister adds that it’s vitally important to identify when a shunt is not working properly, as the resulting build-up of pressure in the head can lead to neurological problems, blindness, seizures and in extreme cases even death.
Initial pressure problems can easily be mistaken for the type of symtoms associated with common childhood illnesses such as colds and flu. It’s crucial, therefore, that young hydrocephalus patients are carefully monitored, so that malfunctions are identified early.
Current methods of assessment involve inserting a pressure monitoring device into the head. ‘But it’s a highly invasive procedure that carries a risk of infection and is poorly tolerated, especially by children. It can also result in lengthy hospital stays’, explains Dr Bannister, who will also be working alongside colleagues at the hospital’s Regional Neurosciences Centre.
She adds: ‘A non-invasive method is therefore highly desirable and could be used routinely at outpatient clinics.’
A new painless technique has seen an encouraging response in a small group of patients in Newcastle. The new non-invasive and painless test, which assesses pressure in the head via the ear canal, takes only about an hour and the results are available immediately.
Before it can be used as a a routine clinical technique, it’s important the tool is fully tested. The Action Research project will include gathering data on a large group of healthy volunteers to ensure they are obtaining similar results on repeated tests. The team will then assess its effectiveness in detecting shunt malfunction in another large group of ‘real’ patients.
John Grounds, the charity’s director of campaigns and communications says: ‘Action Research prides itself on its commitment to help overcome disease and disability. This is a fascinating project which might have a significant impact on quality of life.’
Dr Bannister adds: ‘If this test is shown to be of value, it will not only vastly improve the care of patients with hydrocephalus, but will open up many exciting areas of research for a variety of other conditions, including hearing and balance disorders and brain tumours.’
Action Research, which is fast approaching its 50th anniversary, is dedicated to helping overcome disease and disability for children, families and the elderly across the UK. The charity’s Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2m for vital medical research and more details can be found at www.action.org.uk
For further information and interviews, please contact Nicole Duckworth in the Action Research press office on 01403 327403 Fax: 01403 210541, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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