July 2012

Cooling Therapy Helps Newborns Years Later

A cooling treatment for infants who lack oxygen at birth brings benefits that last for years, a new study shows.

Blood loss and other complications during birth can cause severe oxygen deficiency. This condition is called birth asphyxia or hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. Surviving infants often suffer from brain damage. Even without detectable damage, children who’ve had birth asphyxia are at risk for learning and memory problems later in life.

In 2005, an NIH-supported study found that a cooling therapy called hypothermia treatment could help these babies. The treatment involves placing newborns on a special blanket with cool circulating water. The study showed that treated babies had a lower risk of death and disability nearly 2 years later. The therapy is now used in many neonatal intensive care units.

In the new study, scientists looked to see if the benefits lasted even longer. They examined data from 190 of the original study participants at ages 6 and 7 years. About half the children had received the hypothermia therapy as newborns. The others had received usual care.

The researchers found significantly fewer deaths and cases of severe disability in the hypothermia treatment group. The death rate in the group was 28%, compared to 44% in the usual care group.

“This follow-up study confirms the original finding, showing that children who received the cooling treatment were more likely to survive, and that the survivors were no more likely to have a disability than the children in the untreated group,” says senior author Dr. Rosemary D. Higgins of NIH.