Caffeine cuts disability in very premature babies

12 November, 2007

A quite unexpected benefit of caffeine has come to light. Caffeine helps very premature babies regulate breathing and lowers their chances of developing a disability.

Infants born at less than 34 weeks’ gestation sometimes weigh as little as 500 grams and are at risk of complications of various types in their struggle for survival.

One of the problems with premature babies is underdeveloped lungs, which sometimes leads to their breathing getting interrupted. This can result in injuries to the brain, on account of lack of sufficient oxygen. This condition, called apnea, happens in an estimated 85% of infants who are born very premature.

Caffeine and similar drugs, called methylxanthines, have been used for over 30 years to reduce the frequency of apnea in very pre-term babies, but there have been suspicions about the possible side effects of the therapy.

Now, researchers in Canada say that they have found a way to use caffeine on very premature babies rather safely.

Researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, studied over 2,000 premature babies over five years. Those babies were either treated with caffeine or given a placebo.

The study involved infants who weighed between 500 grams and 1,250 grams at birth and who were at risk of apnea. It was found that those babies receiving caffeine were less likely to develop cerebral palsy and cognitive delay by the time they were 2 years old.

The results of the study have been published in the November 8, 2007, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Caffeine has also been found to reduce the rates of cognitive delay, though it has no significant effect on the rates of death, blindness and severe hearing loss.

According to Dr Barbara Schmidt, lead investigator of the Canadian research project, the babies on the caffeine therapy did so well partly because they left ventilators sooner. She explains, “Ventilation is a double-edged sword: while it is life-saving, it causes injury – scarring the immature lung which is very susceptible to damage.”

The new findings, stressed Dr Barbara Schmidt, definitely gives hope to parents of premature babies.




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