Premature babies face a number of health risks -- from anemia to brain damage.
But now doctors are turning a hopeful eye toward a common compound known as Epsom salt as a possible way to cut the risk of one of the many disorders for which preemies are at heightened risk -- cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy, or CP for short, is a disorder that affects movement, motor skills and muscle coordination because of brain damage caused during birth. There is currently no cure for the disorder, and treatment options have been shown to offer very limited success for cerebral palsy patients.
But a study released today in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that giving moms an infusion of magnesium sulfate -- better known as Epsom salt -- just before they go into premature labor might cut their child's risk for developing cerebral palsy by about a half.
The study looked at more than 2,200 pregnant women who were at high risk for premature birth. Half of the women were randomly assigned to receive an infusion of Epsom salt if they went into early labor, while the other half received a placebo infusion.
Researchers found that moderate or severe cerebral palsy occurred only half as often in the babies whose mothers received Epsom salt compared to those babies who were in the placebo group.
Moreover, researchers found that the rates of death between the two groups did not differ, suggesting that such infusions are a safe treatment option.
If correct, the finding could have major implications. The United Cerebral Palsy Foundation estimates that nearly 800,000 children and adults in the United States are living with one or more of the symptoms of cerebral palsy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10,000 babies are born with cerebral palsy in the United States each year.
Lead study investigator Dr. Dwight Rouse, professor and director of the Center for Women's Reproductive Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said this practice should be strongly considered for women at risk of delivering before 32 weeks.
"I think we have enough data that this should be a strategy considered when women threaten to deliver very early," Rouse said. "If we look at women at less than 28 weeks, we would need to treat only 30 women to prevent one case of moderate to severe cerebral palsy."
However, many neonatal experts urged caution when viewing these results, saying that more study is needed before this treatment should be considered as a standard of care.
"My personal feeling is that this study is important as further confirmation of safety but does not provide sufficiently compelling data to permit recommendation of magnesium sulfate as a standard of care," said Dr. Sessions Cole, director of the division of pediatric newborn medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. "I would hate to have the conclusion be that somehow we now know the way to prevent cerebral palsy, because we don't."
Still, the concept of using magnesium sulfate as a tool to protect the brains of premature babies is not a new one. Past studies have also looked into whether magnesium sulfate might ward off cerebral palsy by stabilizing blood vessels and maintaining oxygen flow to the baby. In fact, a study presented at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine annual meeting in Dallas in January also found that the use of magnesium sulfate cut premature babies' risk for cerebral palsy by about a half.