Some babies who are born too soon can encounter problems with learning, thinking and behaviour as they grow up due to altered brain development. One of the key aims of the Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort is to identify causes of alterations in brain development after preterm birth so that we can develop effective treatments to reduce the risk of long-term problems.
We know that infection or inflammation around the time of birth can increase the risk of developmental problems but because our immune system responses to infection are complex, the specific mediators driving this association are not well understood.
During her PhD, Gemma Sullivan investigated the role of specific immune mediators in brain development after preterm birth and identified a potential therapeutic target. By combining information from placenta, blood and brain MRI from 71 preterm infants, she found that a protein generated by the immune system in response to infection, known as interleukin-8 (IL-8), was associated with altered development of the major information highways of the brain.
These findings suggest that preterm babies may benefit from therapies to reduce inflammation and restore healthy brain development.