By Michelle Fay Cortez, August. 27, — A drug commonly used to prevent premature labor in pregnant women may also reduce the risk that their infants will develop cerebral palsy, researchers said.

A review of health records more than a decade ago suggested that premature newborns whose mothers were treated with magnesium sulfate were less likely to have cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects muscle tone and hampers movement and posture. Still, studies that followed yielded mixed results.

The report in tomorrow’s New England Journal of Medicine shows infusions of magnesium sulfate reduced the number and severity of cerebral palsy cases diagnosed before age two, though it failed to lower death rates. There were few side effects of treatment, which now should be considered an option for women in danger of delivering their infants too soon, said researcher Deborah Hirtz, a pediatric neurologist.

“In survivors, treatment in these preterm babies did reduce the risk of cerebral palsy,” said Hirtz, from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “We think it should be out there for consideration for obstetricians to use for the treatment of women who are delivering early.”

The study, the largest of its kind involving 2,241 women, was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, or NICHD. The researchers also looked at just moderate and severe disease, since mild cerebral palsy can improve or disappear as children get older. Premature birth raises the risk of the condition.

5,000 Diagnosed

After two years, 1.5 percent of those getting in the treatment group had moderate cerebral palsy, compared with 2 percent of those whose mothers were given a placebo. Severe cases were diagnosed in 0.5 percent of magnesium sulfate group and 1.6 percent of those in the placebo group.

More than 5,000 children are diagnosed with cerebral palsy each year, and about 30 percent of them are born prematurely. The risk is greatest in children who spent the least amount of time in the womb. While doctors once speculated that the condition developed when infants were born with the umbilical cord wrapped around their necks, it now appears a lack of oxygen or brain injury earlier in development is more often to blame.

The number of children with cerebral palsy has increased as more premature children survive thanks to advances in medical care, wrote Fiona Stanley from the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia, and Caroline Crowther from the University of Adelaide, in an editorial.

“Although promising, we would advise caution because of the differences” among the treatment approaches seen in the varying drug trials, they wrote. “Better understanding is needed of factors that might influence the likelihood that offspring will benefit from maternal magnesium sulfate treatment, such as the reason for imminent preterm birth, the dose of magnesium sulfate and the timing of administration.”


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