For newborns deprived oxygen at birth, “cooling” can reduce risk for brain damage

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© Rune Hellestad/Corbis

A study published in the October 1 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine finds that, among babies who survive after suffering a severe lack of oxygen at birth, those whose body temperatures are lowered as part of treatment had a greatly reduced risk for brain damage.

The study, which included 325 full-term babies under 6 hours old who all suffered from perinatal asphyxia, gave roughly half (162) the regular standard of intensive care after birth, while half (163) were treated with standard measures and also had their body temperatures lowered to 92°F (33.5°C) for three days following birth. While survival rates were comparable between the two groups—more than one quarter of the babies in each group died—of those who did live, the risk of brain damage at 18 months was far less in the group that had undergone cooling as part of treatment. While 28% of babies treated using current best practices only survived without brain damage, of those in whom moderate hypothermia was also induced, 44% survived with no brain damage.

The promising findings contribute to research that has been developing over the past two decades, and offer for the first time what lead author Dr. Denis Azzopardi told the BBC was “irrefutable proof that cooling can be effective in reducing brain damage after birth asphyxia.”

The study was conducted from December 1, 2002 through November 30, 2006 and included newborns from 42 hospitals across the U.K., Hungary, Sweden, Israel and Finland.