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About SickKids

July 16, 2013

Delayed brain development may lead to brain injury in newborns with heart birth defects

By Nino Meese-Tamuri

Newborns with congenital heart disease are found to be highly vulnerable to brain injuries. While the link between heart defects and slower brain development has long been demonstrated, a new study published on July 16 in Neurology has further uncovered a direct connection between altered brain development and brain injuries in newborns with congenital heart disease.

“Congenital heart disease is one of the most common birth defects. It affects about one in 100 newborns each year,” says Dr. Steven Miller, Head of Neurology and Senior Scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). “Similarly, brain injury and abnormal brain development are also very common in these children. Understanding the link between these conditions is an important step forward.”

The study was jointly conducted by the University of British Columbia and the University of California San Francisco. Miller has since joined SickKids and is also Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto.

Using MRI scans, the study team examined 120 newborns with congenital heart disease. The team determined brain injury severity both before and after operations to correct the heart defect. Before the operation, researchers found a strong link between brain injuries and delayed brain development. These findings suggest that abnormal brain development may lay the foundation for future brain damage. However, the team found no link to new post-operation brain injuries suggesting that these are most likely due to factors around or following surgery.

“The ultimate step will be to develop strategies to promote optimal brain development in utero. This includes ways to help the brain mature while still in the uterus, as well as ensuring optimal brain blood flow after birth.  MRI now gives us a window on the developing brain in babies with heart defects,” said Miller.

The association between delayed brain maturation and long-term outcomes for brain development in children with congenital heart disease is the focus of ongoing studies at SickKids, University of British Columbia and University of California San Francisco.