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Protecting infant brains by studying mice

Updated: Aug 21, 2023


US research in mice has provided insights into how to protect the brain of babies from damage caused by serious infections.


A study at Duke University Medical Center, Virginia, identified a fatty molecule in human breast milk that can reverse brain injury that leads to cerebral palsy in babies.


Cerebral palsy is a lifelong brain condition that develops before, during or soon after birth, and can be caused by infections that affect the brain, such as meningitis.


When the team gave the molecule to newborn mice, they saw that stem cells in the brain were triggered to create new white matter, a type of brain tissue that is commonly damaged in cerebral palsy. The results have paved the way for an upcoming clinical trial in human babies.


Eric Benner at Duke said: “The fact that this molecule is already found in something that is safe for premature babies – breast milk – is extremely encouraging.”


Meanwhile, research led by Boston Children’s Hospital, Massachusetts, looked at how the Zika virus, spread by mosquitos, infects the foetal brain and can cause developmental defects.


The researchers injected pregnant mice with the virus so that the infection passed to the embryos via the bloodstream. By comparing the brains of infected baby mice with healthy ones, the team identified several changes during Zika infection that impeded normal brain development – for example, it triggered an immune reaction that contributes to microcephaly, a condition where babies have a smaller head than expected.


Based on these findings, the team also identified genes that could be targeted with drugs to prevent the virus’s effects.


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