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Hormones can Protect the Brains of Premature Infants

Update Date: Aug 27, 2014 03:20 PM EDT

Premature babies at risk of brain injuries could potentially benefit from using a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO), a new study reported. EPO, which has been illegally used by athletes to boost up their performance, can protect the brains of newborns when given directly after birth.

In this study, the research team from the University Hospital of Geneva in Switzerland recruited 495 infants who were born between weeks 26 and 31. Babies born before reaching week 32 have an increased risk of brain damage due to the fact that their brains have not fully developed. The infants were randomly assigned to two groups. 256 of them received recombinant human EPO whereas the remaining 239 infants were placed in the placebo group. EPO was given intravenously three hours before, at 12 to 18 hours and then at 36 to 42 hours after birth.

Overall, the infants in the EPO group had lower rates of injury to the brain's white matter in comparison to the infants in the control group at 22 percent versus 36 percent. The EPO group also had lower rates of injury to the brain's grey matter when compared to the placebo group (seven percent versus 19 percent).

"We found that the brains of the children who had received the treatment had much less damage than those in the control group, who had been given a placebo," said Dr Russia Ha-Vinh Leuchter, co-researcher of the study, reported by BBC News. "This is the first time that the beneficial effect of the EPO hormone on the brains of premature babies has been shown."

EPO is a hormone that triggers red blood cell production. The synthetic version of the hormone is currently used to treat health conditions, such as anemia. It can also be given to premature infants, reducing their need for blood transfusions. The researchers are calling for more research to be conducted regarding the potential heath benefits of giving premature infants EPO.

The study, "Association Between Early Administration of High-Dose Erythropoietin in Preterm Infants and Brain MRI Abnormality at Term-Equivalent Age," was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

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