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New research into babies' brains "could help in damage recovery"

27 Oct 2005

New research will
investigate the flexibility of children's brains and how children can
compensate for brain damage by switching functions to different parts
of the brain.

Dr Torsten Baldeweg, of the Institute of Child Health
at University College, London, hopes that his work will mean better
identification of problems, which will allow support and treatment to
be given to the child sooner, thereby reducing the number of children
with difficulties in later life.

Baldeweg is particularly keen to address the brain damage that some
babies suffer as a result of premature birth - since 10,000 babies are
born at less than 32 weeks of gestation every year in the UK and of
these 10 to 15 per cent will develop major neurological conditions,
including epilepsy.

A further 20 to 30 per cent will have difficulties with behaviour or learning, including reading or understanding speech.

research team will be scanning the brains of a group of children
between the ages of 10 and 16 who were born prematurely and have some
brain injury. The first scan will use radio frequency waves inside a
magnetic field to map the structure of the brain, and a second scan
will measure the blood flow and blood movement within the brain. These
are called ‘functional scans', because the children are asked to carry
out activities: listening to, or forming speech - whilst the scan is in
progress to highlight the areas of the brain used during the exercise
of that function.

researchers believe that by the age of 10, these changes will be
apparent. The scans will identify where and what the damage was, and
how the brain is exercising the recovered function.

Dr Baldeweg said:

still a mystery why some children recover functions, while others
struggle. We are looking to find out whether this is something
systematic, or whether there are other factors at work that need
further research.

hope that in a few years we will have accurate diagnostic tools such
that we can identify through scans the newly born infant who have
suffered this kind of damage, and offering counselling and speech
therapy, for example, much earlier than we do at present."