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Electrical ‘earthquakes’ of brain predict outcomes for pre-term babies

Scientists at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute have combined physics with physiology to make a discovery which could improve the lifetime health of extremely premature babies.

Professor Michael Breakspear – who heads QIMR Berghofer’s Systems Neuroscience Group – says infants born very early have a high likelihood of developing mental disability or have a reduced capacity for learning physical skills.

“We wanted to develop a tool to predict problems for these tiny babies sooner, because early intervention is their best chance at a full life,” Professor Breakspear said.

“Early indicators of potential problems provide crucial guidance for frontline workers in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) who have to decide treatment options immediately after birth.”

An international collaboration between Professor Breakspear’s team and researchers from Finland and Sweden has developed new measures of electrical activity in the newborn’s brain that precede physical changes – giving NICUs that information sooner than current tests.

The study considered recordings of the brain’s electrical activity (EEG) from pre-term infants with a gestational age of between 22 and 28 weeks.

“These electrical recordings show that the pre-term newborn brain fires bursts of electrical activity in an apparently erratic manner,” Professor Breakspear said.

“Before and after bursts, the brain is completely quiet, so the bursts are much like many other erratic things that happen in nature, like earthquakes and forest fires.”

Professor Breakspear said that by using techniques developed in physics, researchers discovered hidden patterns in these ‘electrical earthquakes’.

“Following exhaustive data testing and statistical validation, our biomedical engineers have been able to show that these patterns pre-empt complications of very early birth, including bleeds into the brain, as well as mental development two years after birth,” he said.

“This has only been possible as a result of the integration of several scientific disciplines that do not normally cross-fertilize – namely medicine, physiology, physics and mathematics.”

The research on pre-term infants has been published today in Brain, a premier neurology journal: