At birth the neonatal or newborn brain is still growing and developing. All the neurons, the basic units of the brain, are present but the synapses or wiring between them is changing. During this time the newborn brain has some ability to repair itself but neonatal brain injury can lead to lifelong medical problems.
We know some of how the neonatal brain changes and develops after birth but a lot is still unknown. Established in 2003 by Prof Geraldine Boylan the Neonatal Brain Research Group works to understand these changes and to find ways of helping babies with brain injuries. Prof Boylan leads a team of researchers from many parts of University College Cork to improve our knowledge and our treatment of problems in the Neonatal brain.
Around 10% of all babies delivered require admission to the special care baby unit. Some of these will have suffered a brain injury or stress. Here at the Neonatal Brain Research Group we work to provide new ways of treating these babies. Past research projects have changed the way babies at risk of fits or seizures are monitored world wide. Prof Boylan’s work helped to pioneer continuous EEG (electroencephalogram) recording of these babies’ brain waves so that we can detect and treat the “silent” seizures of the newborn. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEtpIY8Wiy4)
However people who have the knowledge and experience to read the EEGs of a newborn are in short supply. Prof Boylan is now working with the Engineering Department of UCC, Dr Liam Marnane, Dr Andrey Temko and Dr. Nathan Stevenson among others to design new equipment and computer programs that will monitor these babies, look at the EGGs and then alert us if there are problems. Our aim is to give every one of these babies an expert opinion.
Dr. Irina Korotchikova from the Neonatal Brain Research Group has completed her PhD on the EEG of healthy newborns so that we can understand the changes in the brain in the first few days of life. If we understand what should happen during normal development, we can find and treat problems earlier.
One of the areas of special interest to the Neonatal Brain Research Group are those babies who suffer from HIE or hypoxic ischaemic encephalopathy.A small number of babies who are stressed during delivery suffer from a lack of oxygen. Some of these babies go on to develop HIE. Babies with HIE are at a higher risk of problems later in childhood.
We are also looking at preterm babies, babies that are stressed at birth, babies that suffer from neonatal seizures and healthy babies to try to better understand and treat them. This is research that has and will change the way we treat newborn babies.
Prof Boylan’s role as co-ordinator of the Nemo Study provides us with links to research centres in The Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, France, Belgium, England, and The United States. The NEMO study will look at a new medical treatment for neonatal seizures. This multicentre study is the first Irish paediatric clinical trial to be funded through the EU FP7 grants, and in Ireland will be based at the CUMH and the Neonatal Brain Research Group.