Touching Lives - November 2007
Preventing brain damage in babies
Oxygen deprivation at birth can cause brain injury. However the damage may be influenced by other factors, such as infection. Dr Kendall has been studying how infection affects the degree of damage and hence the eventual disability. His laboratory research has shown that an infection-like stimulus causes a cascade of changes in chemicals within brain tissue and blood vessels.This appears to make the brain more sensitive to a lack of oxygen during labour and delivery, which in turn could put a baby at greater risk. Looking in more detail, Dr Kendall found that a family of proteins known as tumour necrosis factors (TNFs) is key to this. TNFs are cytokines — proteins which help cells ‘talk’ to each other.These results mean that identifying a way to block TNFs might lead to a new form of treatment. Dr Kendall also looked at how the pH in the brain — the levels of acid and alkali — may affect injury. He found that using a drug to block a protein that helps regulate pH can reduce the amount of brain damage following oxygen starvation. This exciting research has improved our understanding of how brain damage occurs and created opportunities for potential treatments. It may assist in guiding clinical management of babies before, during and after birth. In the long term it could help doctors identify at-risk babies, allowing intervention to prevent neurodisabilities such as cerebral palsy.