What if treatment for cerebral palsy (CP) took a quantum leap forward to diminish or prevent the symptoms of the disorder before the child is born? While it won’t help those currently living with the disorder, this discovery can have a phenomenal impact in the future.
Cerebral palsy causes impairment of muscle coordination in varying levels of severity. It’s generally accepted that the cause is usually related to brain damage suffered either at birth or during pregnancy. CP is one of the most common congenital disabilities in children. Now, a medical breakthrough in Australia could spare thousands of children each year from a lifetime of coping with the disability.
It’s currently estimated that about 5% of babies are growth-restricted in the womb due to a lack of oxygen delivered by the placenta. This lack of oxygen, combined with the fetus not getting enough nutrients, can cause the kind of brain damage that results in cerebral palsy.
Doctors in Melbourne have discovered that delivering an antioxidant to children in utero can potentially stop the fetus from suffering brain damage due to abnormal development. This could account for as much as 70% of brain injury cases related to the ailment.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this breakthrough is that the antioxidant used is not a new concoction, not a special chemical cooked up in a lab, but a common substance: melatonin. Giving mothers of abnormally developing fetuses melatonin, which contains antioxidants, has been found to prevent fetal brain injuries, and consequently, stop cerebral palsy.
Euan Wallace, director of obstetrics for Melbourne’s Southern Health service, said that the breakthrough “is significant because, at the moment, there is no treatment we can give women during pregnancy to protect their unborn baby’s brain. Pregnancy is a ‘black box’—we are watching, but until now there has been nothing we can do to intervene.”
Doctors are currently seeking approval from ethics boards to begin active human trials, which would begin with about a dozen subjects. One woman, however, has already conducted her own experiment in this area.
Megan Norbury had three heartbreaking miscarriages and, during her last one, she was desperate to find a way to normalize her unborn child’s development. “I would have stood on my head if it was going to work,” she said. “I needed to get to 24 weeks so I could deliver, but no one thought I was going to get that far.”
Following advice from a friend, Megan began taking over-the-counter antioxidants. At 23 weeks, she stunned a technician giving her an ultrasound. “The woman who scanned me said, ‘I’ve only ever seen this a few times in my career, that a baby improves from where your baby was.'”
Megan’s son Saxon, now five months old, is mostly healthy. The new mom said that, compared to her other pregnancies, taking the antioxidant was the only thing she’d done differently with Saxon, and she hopes her successful trial could help others, though it might be a while before the treatment has definitive confirmation through required, extensive trials.