In a new study, researchers at Children's Research Institute have found a potential key to protecting the brains of premature infants - in a neurotransmitter that appears also to act as a developmental signal. Children's Research Institute is the academic arm of Children's National Health System. The study was published in Nature Neuroscience.
Experts agree that prematurity causes a delay in the formation of white matter, or injury, in the brain and that the degree of prematurity correlates to the degree of white matter injury. Yet little is known about the underlying mechanisms. Recent studies have found significantly lower levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA in the brains of premature babies, suggesting that it may play a role as a developmental signal.
The Children's Research Institute study goes a step further, showing that GABA levels can be regulated through medication, and can open the door to improved treatment of premature babies by reducing the impact of white matter injury.
"In this early study, we found that existing drugs - already widely used for epilepsy in children - can modulate GABA levels in the brain and help repopulate cells that are important to normal brain development," said co-author Joseph Scafidi, DO, a neonatal neurologist at Children's National. "Previously unexplored effects of these drugs may ultimately hold promise for neurological treatment of premature babies, reducing the effects of white matter injury."
They found that treatment with drugs known to modify GABA levels, and/or related signaling, altered the developmental progress of NG2 progenitor cells, which are essential to normal brain development and functional outcomes.
"Our findings suggest that, with further study, it may be possible to harness newborns' natural brain plasticity during critical periods of development, to minimize the effects of brain injury in premature infants," said senior author Vittorio Gallo, PhD, Director of the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children's Research Institute.
"We looked at the GABA 'ecosystem' and saw an effect that could attenuate disturbances from premature birth on the brain's postnatal development," said Gallo.
Some 12 percent of infants are born prematurely in the United States. As survival rates have increased for these infants, so have associated neurological abnormalities. These range from mild to severe cognitive, behavioral, and motor defects.