Oxygen-deprived babies born with brain damage could make miraculous recoveries thanks to research that aims to help prevent the injury spreading.
The study by University of Auckland research fellow Dr Joanne Davidson could prevent babies dying or growing up severely disabled by stopping the spread of damaged brain cells caused by a lack of oxygen before or during birth.
Newborns are much more tolerant than adults of oxygen deprivation, suffering brain injury only after 15 to 20 minutes without oxygen before or during birth.
But once part of the brain is damaged the injury continues to spread to new areas of the brain over hours and days.
During this period Dr Davidson wants to treat the babies with a new technique.
Her research has found that hemichannels - which link the inside of a cell with fluid outside - spread injury by sending out "death" signals to otherwise healthy cells.
She used a peptide, or tiny protein, to temporarily block the channel and stop the brain damage spreading.
"It's very exciting because the problem with oxygen deprivation at birth is we've only got one other treatment and it's only partially effective."
At present full-term brain-damaged newborns are treated with therapeutic hypothermia to slow brain function and allow it to heal but Dr Davidson said this treatment, developed at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, did not work for all infants. It appeared her treatment could be used in conjunction with hypothermia to increase the baby's chance of a full recovery.
"We need other treatments that we can give either with hypothermia or instead of hypothermia to improve the outcomes for these babies."
Babies could suffer oxygen deprivation in the womb if there was a knot in the umbilical chord, or during a prolonged or complicated delivery.
"They have a lot of motor problems, a lot of cognitive problems and this will try and reduce that burden of injury. [The treatment] is to try to give them a normal chance at life."
Dr Davidson, who works in the fetal physiology and neuroscience group, said what dose to give, how and when to administer it and possible side-effects needed to be explored before the treatment could be clinically tested.
Other research using the peptide was aimed at stopping the spread of brain injury in stroke patients. It was also being used in eye injuries.
"It's all about the way that those injuries slowly spread over time."
Mum wants research fast-tracked
Jenn Hooper's life revolves around 24-hour care for her severely disabled daughter Charley, who was deprived of oxygen for an hour during a botched birth eight years ago.
Charley was left with severe cerebral palsy and spastic tetraplegia and used to suffer 200 seizures a day. The Hamilton girl can't move, can't talk, has to be spoon-fed pureed food, wears nappies, can't control her temperature, can't breathe on her own at night requiring hourly checks, and has undergone dozens of surgeries in her short life. Next week she will have a rod inserted in her spine to stop a debilitating curvature, undergoing a 10-hour surgery and six month recovery.
Mrs Hooper, 43, invented a wrap to help Charley sit straighter, a harness for car travel, must buy special clothes for her daughter, and bought a house, car, furniture and special cot all to cater for Charley's disabilities. She called Charley's needs "relentless" and said research into a treatment to prevent such severe brain damage was vital, calling for it to be fast-tracked.
"Once you have a child with a brain injury of this description there's very little to treat them. If there's something that can prevent that damage from happening then fantastic."
Mrs Hooper, who founded Action to Improve Maternity, said future families to benefit from this research might never have to "watch your child suffer every day of their life".
Brain Awareness Week: Today until Saturday
*A global campaign to increase public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research.
*One in five New Zealanders will suffer from brain disease in their lifetime and about 50,000 Kiwis are living with a brain disorder.
*They include Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's, stroke, epilepsy, motor neuron disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, mental illness and deafness.
*The Centre for Brain Research, in partnership with the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand, will host a Brain Day on March 29. Visit the University of Auckland's Faculty of Medical and Health Science at auckland.ac.nz.