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Health Team

Drug May Cut Risk of Cerebral Palsy in Pre-Term Babies

Posted January 31, 2008 12:55 p.m. EST
Updated January 31, 2008 11:15 p.m. EST

— A premature birth puts a baby at greater risk of developing cerebral palsy, but doctors at the University of North Carolina believe there's a simple way to cut that risk.

cerebral palsy occurs mostly during pregnancy, but it can happen during child birth or up to age 3. It makes the brain unable to control certain muscle movements.

Most of Dr. John Thorp's obstetric patients progress on to full-term births. Some women develop problems that place them at risk of seizures or early labor, however, and those women may receive an infusion of magnesium sulfate.

“It's a good drug to stop seizures in moms. It is, at best, minimally effective to stop labor,” Thorp said.

Some past studies suggested the drug – the same solution as Epsom salts–- may help cut the risk of the baby developing cerebral palsy, which occurs in one out of 1,000 births.

For pre-term babies, the risk increases 50 fold. Thorp and UNC were part of a 20-center study that included 3,000 mothers with pre-term babies to confirm the possible benefit of magnesium sulfate.

“This seems to be the definitive proof,” Thorp said.

The infusion cut pre-term babies' risk of cerebral palsy in half, though researchers aren't sure why.

“In some sense, magnesium is a calcium channel blocker that may help regulate blood flow in a premature baby's brain,” Thorp said.

Magnesium sulfate is already widely used for other reasons in labor and delivery centers across the country. Doctors, nurses and midwives are familiar with it. It's cheap and readily available and is a relatively safe drug with minimal risk to the mother.

Thorp presented the study findings Thursday. The results are also under review with the New England Journal of Medicine.