Blood test to identify brain damage hours after birth

Such blood-profiling could be a rapid, low-cost tool for developing countries

Updated - August 15, 2020 07:20 pm IST

Published - August 15, 2020 07:17 pm IST

“The piercing first cry of babies is not just a symbol of new life but a desperate puff for air... lack of oxygen to the brain for whatever reason can cause a wide range of neurological damages, and in some cases, even death,” explains Prof. C.N. Kamalarathnam from the Institute Of Child Health and Hospital for Children, Chennai. He was part of an international team that has designed a new blood test to identify if a newborn baby deprived of oxygen at birth is at risk of developing neurological disabilities later. Such babies are known to have trouble in learning and hearing, low IQ, and even develop cerebral palsy.

Gene activity

The team collected blood samples soon after birth from 47 babies in India (Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai and Thiruvananthapuram) who experienced this oxygen deprivation and studied their gene activity.

They identified 855 genes that were “switched on or off” at the time of birth in the babies who had neurological disability later, compared to those who did not. They point out two genes named RGS1 and SMC4 which were the most significant .

“By identifying babies that have a different gene activity soon after birth, we can track down [those]who will have adverse outcomes and need specific care. This is a preliminary study and tests on larger cohorts are essential. The results suggest that such blood profiling may be a promising rapid and cheap tool in developing and underdeveloped countries,” adds lead author of the paper published in Scientific Reports, Dr. Paolo Montaldo from Imperial College, Centre for Perinatal Neuroscience, London, in a Skype call to The Hindu.

Hypothermia study

This study was part of a trial called HELIX (Hypothermia for Encephalopathy in Low and middle-income countries). The study is being carried out in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, where the researchers examine the use of whole-body cooling in oxygen-deprived babies.

“In India, after prematurity and infection, lack of oxygen to the brain is the cause of neonatal mortality or death within 28 days of birth. In Western countries, this therapeutic hypothermia or cooling is well documented and is even the standard care for such babies,” explains Dr.B.H. Prathik from the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health in Bengaluru, an author of the paper.

“Newborn babies’ body temperature is usually at 36.5 to 37.5 degrees Celsius. But in this treatment, they are wrapped in a small blanket of 33.5 degrees Celsius for 72 hours and gradually rewarmed. We are still studying if this method will work in our country and can help reduce mortality and neurological damage. The results are yet to be published,” he adds.

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