RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now to new research on premature babies. They're much more likely to survive than they were just a couple of decades ago. Still, these tiny babies often have brain damage that can cause cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or behavioral disorders such as ADHD. We're going to hear now about some research presented this week at the Society for Neuroscience meeting here in Washington, D.C. As NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, it shows scientists are beginning to figure out what's happening to the brains of these premature babies.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The babies at greatest risk of brain damage are born up to three months early. And David Rowitch, of the University of California-San Francisco, says they are very, very small.

DAVID ROWITCH: Such a baby would weigh about a pound, would fit into the palm of your hand. And as you can imagine, they're very fragile and vulnerable to stresses.

HAMILTON: Those stresses often include periods when not enough oxygen is reaching their brains. And Rowitch told scientists at the meeting that there's growing evidence this lack of oxygen is causing damage to the brain's so-called white matter.

ROWITCH: The white matter tracks the brain, the communication highways - they're filled with fibers that connect neurons between different parts of the brain, and connect neurons of the brain to the body.

HAMILTON: Rowitch has found a particular problem with the most common type of white matter. It's called myelin, and it acts like an insulator around the nerve fibers that carry messages in the brain and nervous system. Without enough myelin, short circuits can prevent these messages from getting through. That would explain problems like cerebral palsy, in which messages from the brain are not reaching certain muscles. Short circuits also could affect brain development in ways that could cause disorders such as ADHD. Rowitch initially found evidence of white matter damage by studying brains from premature infants who died. But since then, he says, he's been able to assess premature infants using a special incubator designed to fit in an MRI scanner.

ROWITCH: And we've been able to now take over 250 babies that are very preterm, to the MRI scanner safely to show that this is a feasible approach to detect white matter injury early on.

HAMILTON: Now the question is how to prevent or repair that sort of injury. Vittorio Gallo, from Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., says his research shows that it's important to act right away.

VITTORIO GALLO: There is a very critical developmental time window right after birth. If development is disturbed during this critical developmental time window, then the brain doesn't catch up.

HAMILTON: Gallo is part of a team of scientists who have shown that it's possible to intervene - at least in mice. Gallo says one approach involves giving the mice a drug that speeds up production of myelin.

GALLO: We do this intervention right after the injury. And we found that by targeting specific targets, we can recover and regenerate at least part of these cells right after the injury, during that critical developmental time window.

HAMILTON: Gallo says any drug for people is still years off. But other scientists at the meeting say there are promising treatments available now. These include everything from magnetically stimulating certain areas of the brain, to temporarily lowering the body temperature of premature infants to protect brain tissue. Mark Goldberg, of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, says if any of these approaches work, the benefits are likely to extend far beyond infants.

MARK GOLDBERG: This white matter injury happens in perinatal brain injury. It happens in multiple sclerosis. It happens in traumatic brain and spinal cord injury. It happens in stroke. So we hope very much that the kind of therapeutic directions that work in one system can be applied directly to another system, another disease.

HAMILTON: So if researchers can come up with new treatments for tiny babies, they will probably be helping many adults as well. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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