No matter the advancements in technology or prenatal precautions we take, premature babies will continue to be born. While there are obviously many things you can try to do to keep this from happening to your baby, there's only so much you can do. When a baby is born prematurely, the chances of hypoxia- also known as a lack of oxygen- occurring in the brain is higher.
How seriously can hypoxia in the brain affect your baby? Well, according to one new study, it's bad- but not as bad as we thought. It was previously thought by researchers that hypoxia would end up killing the affected baby's brain cells. But as it turns out, that's simply not true. However, it can still negatively impact the baby's brain and subsequent development.
"Our findings raise new concerns about the vulnerability of the preterm brain to hypoxia. They are concerning for the long-term impact that oxygen deprivation can have on the ability of these preterm babies to learn as they grow to school age and adulthood," explained the study's principal investigator, Stephen Back, M.D., Ph.D., Clyde and Elda Munson Professor of Pediatric Research and Pediatrics, OHSU School of Medicine, OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital.
The new research shows that just 30 minutes of hypoxia in a preemie is still enough time to disrupt the structure and function of the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that's critical for learning and memory. Such a thing is important when you learn that preemies kept in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can experience upwards of 600 short yet impactful periods of hypoxia per week.
In this case, researchers utilized a twin preterm fetal sheep model to study the impact of hypoxia by itself, as well as a combination of hypoxia and ischemia in the hippocampus. Ischemia is also known as insufficient blood flow. The result of this experiment showed that the hippocampus is compromised in its growth. But the brain cells don't die; instead, these cells don't mature at a normal rate. That can cause a reduction in long-term potentiation, which is how the brain learns on a cellular basis.
"We want to understand next how very brief or prolonged exposure to hypoxia affects the ability for optimal learning and memory, " Back explains. "This will allow us to understand how the hippocampus responds to a lack of oxygen, creating new mechanisms of care and intervention both at the hospital, and at home."