In an astonishing new study published in Epilepsia, researchers determined that "cooling babies deprived of oxygen at birth (perinatal asphyxia) can reduce the number of children who develop epilepsy later in childhood." Babies who sustain perinatal asphyxia often develop conditions as severe as cerebral palsy or epilepsy. This impacts their overall quality of life as they will require permanent antiepileptic treatment and may even see their life expectancy shortened by the condition or treatment.
However, a cooling treatment, called therapeutic hypothermia, administered to newborns who are deprived of oxygen during delivery has shown much promise. In the study, an eight-year program collected data relating to more than 160 children diagnosed with epilepsy as the result of oxygen deprivation at birth. Most used antiepileptic drug therapies and were up to eight years in age.
Those in the group treated with the innovative cooling treatment (meaning those born after 2007), showed a much lower level of epilepsy than those who were born before the treatment became available. The study looked at babies aged two and then at aged four to eight. "At two years, seven percent of the children had an epilepsy diagnosis, however, far fewer, only two percent, were on regular antiepileptic drugs."
By the time they reached four to eight years in age, 7% were on regular medication. However, this is a substantially lower percentage when compared to the same groups prior to the introduction of cooling treatment as a standard of care.
Prior to the use of therapeutic hypothermia, the numbers were substantially different. In fact, death or moderate to severe disability was at roughly 66% of children who suffered oxygen deprivation and epilepsy as a result. But of those born after the introduction of the treatment in 2007, the poor outcome is cut almost in half and stands at 34%.
Even more interesting is the alteration to the levels of severity of the conditions. For example, those who sustained cerebral palsy as a result of the oxygen deprivation live with much less severe cases, with seven out of ten able to walk.
Do the figures alter if the severity of the perinatal asphyxia is less severe, too? The therapy has been shown to boost the number of survivors with very few of the children treated even requiring drug treatment for their epilepsy.
The professor running the study, Marianne Thoresen, explained that even with less severe oxygen deprivation, the use of a therapeutic hypothermia consistent reduces the number of children developing epilepsy later in their lives, as well as reducing the numbers (and severity) of patients who suffer cerebral palsy.
The Meaning of the Data
What all of this means is, any instances (mild to severe) of perinatal asphyxia that were once a guarantee of conditions, such as epilepsy and cerebral palsy, now show it to be less certain. With the introduction of therapeutic hypothermia, a generation of children have developed less severe symptoms and enjoyed a much higher quality of life.
Children may no longer need to be treated with aggressive antiepileptic drugs or suffer the lower quality of life that conditions such as cerebral palsy and epilepsy can cause. Instead, the use of this groundbreaking treatment may be able to increase life expectancy, quality of life and even cognitive function.
Though already in use for some cardiac patients, as well as for neonatal patients with stroke or encephalopathy, this treatment promises even more. Oxygen deprivation during birth may no longer be a dreaded event without any treatment options, and conditions like epilepsy or cerebral palsy may be reduced to much milder issues.
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