Giving pregnant mothers magnesium sulphate when they are at risk of very preterm birth can help protect their babies from cerebral palsy, according to an international review of research involving the University of Adelaide.
The findings of this review - published January 21 on the international research website The Cochrane Library - could help decrease the incidence of this disabling condition, which affects one in 500 newborn babies overall and one in 10 very premature babies (less than 28 weeks gestation).
Magnesium sulphate therapy involves giving doses of magnesium sulphate to pregnant women via injection.
The potential for magnesium sulphate to decrease the risk of cerebral palsy in babies was first proposed in the early 1990s. The new Cochrane review, which supports this suggestion, was carried out by leading researchers from Australia (University of Melbourne and University of Adelaide), France (University Hospital, Rouen) and the United States (University of Alabama).
The review involved data from 6145 babies included in five trials of antenatal magnesium sulphate therapy.
"For infants born very premature, there is a high risk of cerebral palsy," says one of the researchers, Professor Caroline Crowther, Director of the University of Adelaide's Australian Research Centre for Health of Women and Babies (ARCH), based at the Women's & Children's Hospital.
"This new Cochrane review shows there is now evidence to support giving magnesium sulphate therapy to women at risk of very preterm birth to increase their unborn baby's chance of survival, free of cerebral palsy."
The exact mechanism of magnesium sulphate in protecting the developing brain is not certain. However, magnesium is vital for normal cell function, may protect against destructive molecules that can harm cells, and in some circumstances improves blood flow.
Side effects of the treatment include flushing, sweating, nausea, vomiting, headaches and palpitations. However, the researchers found no increase in major complications in mothers due to magnesium therapy.
"Given the positive findings of the Cochrane review, further studies will need to be conducted to clarify exactly how magnesium sulphate works as a neuroprotective agent, who should receive the medication and how best the treatment should be given," Professor Crowther says.
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