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Sharp Health News

Learning more about the brains of preemies

June 3, 2021

Learning more about the brains of preemies

When babies are born too early, caregivers need to understand as much as possible — and as quickly as possible — about the newborn’s health to ensure the baby gets the necessary lifesaving treatments. Monitoring babies right after their birth includes measuring their heart rate and blood oxygen levels, but neither methods measure how much oxygen gets delivered to the babies' brain.

However, results of a research study performed at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns may open the door to another way of monitoring preterm newborns in these critical early moments after birth: brain monitoring.

The research, led by Dr. Anup Katheria, director of the Neonatal Research Institute at Sharp Mary Birch, shows that monitoring a preterm newborn’s brain activity and oxygen level immediately after birth can help predict whether an infant will survive or have severe brain injury within the first 72 hours of life.

These findings have a broader impact on doctors’ understanding of a premature infant’s brain and how they respond right after birth, which helps determine the best treatments for these vulnerable infants, says Dr. Katheria.

The study is the first of its kind to analyze the brain rhythms and oxygen levels of preterm infants — born at less than 32 weeks of gestation — in the delivery room, as the infants received lifesaving care.

“We are enthusiastic about the study, as it provides preliminary data about brain activity,” says Dr. Katheria. “This can help determine how to better protect an infant’s brain from permanent injury or even death.”

The study involved placing brain sensors on 127 preterm infants for 10 minutes immediately after birth to measure their brain rhythms and oxygen levels. Once the infants were transferred to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), their brain rhythms and oxygen levels were monitored a second time.

An ultrasound of each infant’s head was performed within the first 12 hours of life and again at 72 hours. The study found that preterm infants with the lowest levels of oxygen in their brains right after birth were more likely to develop severe brain bleeding or die.

This study was funded by the Gerber and Norris Foundations and conducted between October 2015 and December 2016 at Sharp Mary Birch.

This is the fourth study from the Neonatal Research Institute published in The Journal of Pediatrics. The last study, published in December 2017, found that the practice of umbilical cord milking — a technique in which blood is gently pushed through the umbilical cord into an infant’s circulatory system at birth — can increase the cognitive and language abilities of preterm infants.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Anup Katheria about the Neonatal Research Institute at Sharp Mary Birch for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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