Study hoping to reduce cerebral palsy in preterm infants

Monday 19 December 2022

A new study by Mater Research and The University of Queensland will investigate if sulphate therapy reduces the risk of developing cerebral palsy after preterm birth.

The three-year study, led by Mater Research researcher Associate Professor Paul Dawson, has been awarded a $966,000 grant by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

The study is being undertaken following evidence that sulphate is important for brain development and that preterm infants rapidly become sulphate deficient unless their mother receives magnesium sulphate during preterm labour.

Magnesium sulphate is currently administered to mothers in preterm labour at less than 30 weeks gestation and reduces the risk of cerebral palsy in the infant.

However, almost half of women miss out on this neuroprotective therapy due to insufficient time to give the treatment. Associate Professor Dawson said the new research will examine the safety and benefit of sulphate provided in the preterm neonatal period, which is aimed at benefiting those neonates whose mothers missed out on magnesium sulphate prior to birth.

“This research has the potential to benefit around 3,500 preterm infants born every year across Australia,” A/Prof Dawson said.

“By introducing a sulphate supplement which can be provided to the infant post-birth, it is proposed the risk of adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes, such as cerebral palsy, will be reduced.

“This research follows a human clinical study, due to finish in late 2023, which aims to find out whether low sulphate blood levels after birth predispose preterm infants to later disability, including cerebral palsy.

“While it is known that magnesium sulphate reduces the risk of cerebral palsy in preterm infants, my research is the first to propose sulphate as the neuroprotective agent rather than the magnesium.”

Cerebral palsy is the most common motor disability affecting body movements and posture as a result of brain injuries either before or after birth.

With cerebral palsy officially diagnosed at two years old, A/Prof Dawson said research would be ongoing to track if the supplementation of sulphate post-birth would reduce learning difficulties in future years.

“The benefits of this research are that this supplement is low cost, low risk, and will be accessible by families throughout Australia and the world,” A/Prof Dawson said.