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Reducing the impact of congenital heart disease on brain development

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Congenital heart disease includes a range of heart problems that develop in the womb before a baby is born. As one of the most common birth abnormalities, they affect almost one in 100 babies born each year in the UK.1 These heart problems can be serious and sadly, some children lose their lives. But, thanks to advances in early diagnosis and treatment, around eight out of 10 children with congenital heart disease will now grow up to become adults.2 However, they tend to do worse at school, with up to half experiencing neurodevelopmental problems.2 Professor Serena Counsell at King’s College London is investigating the causes of neurodevelopmental delay in children with congenital heart disease, paving the way towards new life-improving treatments.

How are children’s lives affected now?

There are many different types of congenital heart disease, including conditions where a baby’s heart valves don’t form properly or there are holes between the chambers of their heart. For many babies, their problem doesn’t require treatment, or can be corrected with heart surgery. But for others, it can be more serious and sadly, some do not survive.

“Thanks to a combination of outstanding advances in treatment and earlier diagnosis, today most children will survive congenital heart disease and grow up to become adults,” says Professor Counsell.

But unfortunately, this comes at a cost – children with these conditions tend to do worse at school, with up to half experiencing problems with movement, coordination, memory, hyperactivity, attention, speech and language skills.

“We need to understand why so many of these children go on to experience neurodevelopmental difficulties that can have a major impact on their life chances,” says Professor Counsell.

How could this research help?

“Our aim is to reduce the long-term effects of congenital heart disease on brain development, helping children to achieve their full potential” says Professor Counsell. “But first, we need to find out more about what is going wrong.”

To tackle this, she is bringing together a team of leading doctors and scientists who have already collected cutting-edge magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of 80 newborn babies with these diseases, before they underwent surgery.

Now that the children are around two years old, the researchers are planning to repeat the scans, as well as carry out tests to assess their movement, learning and language skills. They will look for any specific changes in their brain scans that link with neurodevelopmental delay.

“We hope we can improve our understanding of why many children with congenital heart disease experience neurodevelopmental problems, and achieve a more accurate way of measuring brain development – giving us the tools we will need to test new treatments in the future,” says Professor Counsell.


1.NHS Choices website: [Website accessed 04/12/2017]

2.Latal B. Neurodevelopmental outcomes of the child with congenital heart disease. Clinical Perinatology 2016; 43(1): 173-85



Project LeaderProfessor Serena J Counsell, PhD
Project TeamDr Dafnis Batalle, PhDDr Chiara Nosarti, PhDProfessor John Simpson, FRCPDr Donald Tournier, PhDDr Suresh Victor, FRCPCHProfessor Mary A Rutherford, FRCR
Project Location Department of Perinatal Imaging and Health, Centre for the Developing Brain, King’s College London
Project Location OtherDepartment of Psychosis Studies, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College LondonFetal Cardiology, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, LondonDepartment of Perinatal Imaging and Health, Division of Imaging Sciences and Biomedical Engineering, King’s College London
Project duration30 months
Date awarded20 November 2017
Project start date9 April 2018
Project end date8 October 2020
Grant amount£174,035
Grant codeGN2630

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