Oxygen-deprived newborns who undergo hypothermia therapy have a higher risk of seizures and brain damage during the rewarming period, according to a new study. The finding, published online in JAMA Neurology, could lead to better ways to protect these vulnerable patients during an often overlooked yet critical period of hypothermia therapy.
“A wealth of evidence has shown that cooling babies who don’t receive enough oxygen during birth can improve their neurodevelopmental outcomes, but few studies have looked at events that occur as they are rewarmed to a normal body temperature,” said study leader Lina Chalak, MD, MSCS, Professor at UT Southwestern. “We’re showing that there’s a significantly elevated risk of seizures during the rewarming period, which typically go unnoticed and can cause long-term harm.”
Millions of newborns around the world are affected by neonatal hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy (HIE), brain damage initially caused by hypoxia during birth. Although the World Health Organization estimates that birth asphyxia is responsible for nearly a quarter of all neonatal deaths, those babies that survive oxygen deprivation are often left with neurological injuries, Dr Chalak explained.
To help improve outcomes, babies diagnosed with HIE are treated with hypothermia, using a cooling blanket that brings the body temperature down to as low as 33.5°C, said Dr. Chalak.
Studies initially showed that during cooling, babies with HIE commonly have symptomless seizures, which are neurological events that can further damage the brain, prompting the addition of electroencephalographic (EEG) monitoring to the hypothermia protocol. However, Dr Chalak explained, babies typically haven’t been monitored during the rewarming period, in which the temperature of the blanket is increased by 0.5°C every hour.
To better understand seizure risk during rewarming, Dr. Chalak and colleagues studied 120 babies who were enrolled in another study that compared two different cooling protocols, one longer and colder than the other. The babies in the study were also monitored with EEG to check for seizures both during the cooling and the rewarming phases of hypothermia.
When the researchers compared data from the last 12 hours of cooling and the first 12 hours of rewarming, they found that rewarming roughly tripled the odds of seizures. Additionally, babies who had seizures during rewarming, there was twice the risk of mortality or neurological disability by age 2, compared with those who didn’t have seizures during this period. This finding held true even after adjusting for differences in medical centers and the newborns’ HIE severity.
While it is not known how to prevent seizures from occurring in babies with HIE, treating seizures when they do occur can help prevent further brain damage, Dr Chalak said. Thus, monitoring during both cooling and rewarming can help protect the babies’ brains from further insults while they heal.
“This study is telling us that there’s an untapped opportunity to improve care for these babies during rewarming by making monitoring a standard part of the protocol,” said Dr Chalak.