New Blood Test Could Predict Cerebral Palsy Risk in Premature Babies, Study Suggests


A blood test that identifies changes in specific molecules through a tiny amount of blood collected days to weeks after birth could be used to predict the risk of cerebral palsy in premature babies, a study suggests.

The study, “MicroRNA Profile Differences in Neonates at Risk for Cerebral Palsy,” was published in the journal Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation International.

Babies born before full term, which is at approximately 40 weeks, are at risk of a variety of complications and health problems, including long-term or permanent disabilities such as cerebral palsy.

A recent study found that extremely premature and underweight newborns, namely those born at less than 28 weeks and weighing less than 2.2 pounds, have a greater risk of developing cerebral palsy or other motor impairments by the time they are 8 years old.

Identifying early diagnostic biomarkers — biological signs of disease — could help manage cerebral palsy from an early age.

MicroRNAs are small molecules produced within cells that can control the way in which genes are expressed. They can affect a range of functions in the body, including certain aspects of body development.

Abnormalities in microRNA levels have been detected in many diseases, and can, in some cases, act as diagnostic tools, which can help with early intervention.

This has been aided by technological advances that have enabled scientists to simultaneously analyze a large number of microRNAs within cells and other biological samples. Such analyses can give a picture of the levels of microRNAs in a specific sample.

The team analyzed levels of 752 microRNAs from 31 blood samples obtained from premature babies, born at less than 32 weeks and weighing less than 3 pounds.

They successfully identified distinctive microRNA profiles that were changed in children with abnormal muscle tone and intraventricular haemorrhage (IVH) — a type of bleeding that takes place inside the fluid-filled areas of the brain — both considered to be risk factors for cerebral palsy.

A total of 70 microRNAs were found to be at abnormal levels in infants with abnormal muscle tone, and 23 micoRNAs were at abnormal levels in the IVH group.

“If our promising results are confirmed in larger, multicenter studies, screening preemies for microRNA biomarkers shortly after birth could allow intervention before cerebral palsy manifests, which is typically at 18 months to 2 years of age,” senior author Maria Dizon, MD, neonatologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a press release. “With earlier diagnosis and therapy, the chances of achieving better motor function are much greater since the central nervous system is most plastic in infants.”

Although the study had some limitations, including sample size and few subjects diagnosed with cerebral palsy, “it represents an important first attempt in identifying specific plasma miRs important in preterm brain injury leading to motor dysfunction,” the researchers wrote.