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About SickKids

January 28, 2016

Pain management in premature infants linked to impaired brain development

Morphine, a drug commonly used to manage pain in premature babies, is linked to decreased growth in the cerebellum, resulting in both physical and cognitive impairments, a new study by The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) has found.

The problem is, the alternatives — using another drug like fentanyl, or not providing any pain relief medication — may pose similar risks to neonatal brain development.

“In our study of 136 babies born very preterm, higher morphine exposure was shown to be associated with impairments in brain growth, particularly in the cerebellum,” says Senior Author Dr. Emily Tam, a paediatric neurologist and associate scientist at SickKids, of research published earlier this month in the Journal of Pediatrics.

During the first weeks of life in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), newborns experience multiple procedures a day, including insertion of a tube to help them breathe, as well as injections, heel pricks and tape removal; surgical procedures are also common. Morphine is usually the drug provided to blunt their pain.

It’s during this time when premature babies are most at risk for impairments in brain growth, particularly in the cerebellum. Previously thought to be involved only in motor functions, such as balance and coordination, the cerebellum is now known to play a major role in attention, executive functions, and language. Impairment in the cerebellum is linked to neurodevelopmental conditions including ADHD, autism, learning disabilities and developmental coordination disorder.

In the study, the research team observed babies born at 24 to 32 weeks who were given morphine for sedation and pain control. They found that the greater the morphine exposure among the infants, the smaller the volume of the cerebellum in neuroimaging conducted during the neonatal period, even after considering other risk factors such as number of painful procedures, other brain injuries, and exposure to steroids. A 10-fold increase in morphine predicted a 5.5 per cent decrease in cerebellar volume. Higher levels of morphine exposure also produced poorer results on motor skills and cognitive tests given at 18 months.

The study was conceived by Jill Zwicker, an Assistant Professor in UBC’s Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, a when she was a postdoctoral fellow with NeuroDevNet, a national Network of Centres of Excellence focused on brain development. Dr. Zwicker noticed that animal models showed an effect of morphine on specific cells of the cerebellum, and wondered if the same would be the case for preterm newborns who receive morphine in NICU.

The latest findings present a dilemma for physicians and parents when caring for infants who are born prematurely and require medical interventions. Previous research by co-author Ruth Grunau, a neonatologist and professor in UBC’s Department of Paediatrics, showed that not alleviating the pain in pre-term newborns carries risks for brain development as well. An alternative drug, fentanyl, has also been shown to affect growth of the cerebellum when given to premature infants.

“Being aware of the association of morphine with smaller cerebellar growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes may alter clinical decision making, but there may be times when morphine may be the best drug of choice for the baby’s care in the NICU,” said Dr. Zwicker.

At this point, there isn’t clear evidence pointing to which methods of pain control are better or worse, added Dr. Tam. “Our finding points to the need for research to optimize pain control in newborns while being mindful to minimize risks for brain development,” she said.

“It is imperative that we find how to treat pain in the neonate in ways that promote optimal brain development,” said co-author Steven Miller, Head of Neurology and the Centre for Brain and Mental Health at SickKids and  Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto.

This study was supported by Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Child Health Clinician Scientist Program, Child and Family Research Institute, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and NeuroDevNet Network of Centres of Excellence, and SickKids Foundation.

About The Hospital for Sick Children
The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is recognized as one of the world’s foremost paediatric health-care institutions and is Canada’s leading centre dedicated to advancing children’s health through the integration of patient care, research and education. Founded in 1875 and affiliated with the University of Toronto, SickKids is one of Canada’s most research-intensive hospitals and has generated discoveries that have helped children globally.  Its mission is to provide the best in complex and specialized family-centred care; pioneer scientific and clinical advancements; share expertise; foster an academic environment that nurtures health-care professionals; and champion an accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system. SickKids is proud of its vision for Healthier Children. A Better World. For more information, please visit www.sickkids.ca.

About the University of British Columbia
The University of British Columbia (UBC) is one of North America’s largest public research and teaching institutions, and is consistently ranked among the world’s 40 best universities. Surrounded by the beauty of the Canadian West, it is a place that inspires bold, new ways of thinking that have helped make it a national leader in areas as diverse as community service learning, sustainability and research commercialization. UBC offers more than 58,000 students a range of innovative programs and attracts $519 million per year in research funding from government, non-profit organizations and industry through over 8,000 projects and grants.

About NeuroDevNet
NeuroDevNet is a Canadian National Network of Centres of Excellence dedicated to early diagnosis, prevention and treatment of neurodevelopmental disabilities and support for families. Our vision is to improve outcomes by accelerating and integrating the discovery and utilization of knowledge that will enable children with neurodisabilities live healthier lives—with social, economic and health benefits for all. More than 300 of Canada’s top scientists, clinicians and trainees, linked through research projects, research application, training and support in 39 Canadian and international universities and pediatric centers contribute to the realization of this endeavor.

Media Contacts:

Suzanne Gold
The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids)
416-813-7654 ext. 202059

Brian Kladko
The University of British Columbia
604-827 3301

Bethany Becker
604-875-2424 ext. 4672