Researchers develop life-impacting monitoring tool for preterm babies

16 March 2023

Researchers at QIMR Berghofer have harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to rapidly track how preterm babies are developing in neonatal intensive care.

Dr Nathan Stevenson and Dr Kartik Iyer, in collaboration with researchers from Austria and Finland, have found a noninvasive way of estimating a baby’s developmental age at the bedside, using just their heart rate.

By applying complex computer analysis to the vast amounts of data within long duration recordings of a baby’s electrocardiogram (ECG) heart monitoring, the QIMR Berghofer team has been able to produce a simple readout of the infant’s developmental age. The tool will help to detect developmental delays, guide early intervention and measure treatment outcomes.

“Preterm babies are vulnerable to a range of complications, and it’s vital that any change in health status is caught early for the best possible outcome. Small problems can develop into big problems as a baby gets older, but the right early intervention can have a significant and long-lasting impact on life,” Dr Stevenson said.

“It can be difficult to monitor for these issues in preterm babies due to their tender age and small size. But our tool piggy backs onto noninvasive ECG recordings that are already being gathered in the nursery.

“Comparing development against a person’s true birth age is one of the best ways to track health. In the elderly, for example, being too advanced for your age is a concern. In babies we’re worried about being too young for your age.”

Dr Kartik Iyer and Dr Nathan Stevenson.

The ECG is a useful noninvasive measurement as it provides information on a person’s heart, breathing, and even how their brain controls the heart. It is also affected by medication, disease and injury.

Dr Iyer said ECG results changed quite a bit in preterm babies in their earliest days and weeks, as they developed and the connections between their heart and brain developed.

“By extracting subtle and diverse information from the ECG signal, we can provide an estimate of developmental age that can be different to a preterm baby’s chronological age. If their developmental age is lagging, clinicians can intervene with treatments that are personalised to the child,” said Dr Iyer – the first author on the study.

It’s hoped the tool will be in the clinic within five years as work continues on even more complex analyses to extract a more complete picture of a baby’s wellbeing.

“Our next goal is to be able to extract information related to age, medication, disease and injury, and provide the best picture of a baby’s current health for doctors,” Dr Stevenson said.

“The challenge is to make sure that not only do preterm infants survive, but they survive with the best possible health for their whole life. That’s where this precision medicine, this increased diagnostic information, really helps targeted clinical care.”

The research has been published in the journal Pediatric Research.


Jodie Stephens
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