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Fewer Painful Procedures Could Help Preemies' Brain Development: Study

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 21, 2020 -- Giving fewer needle sticks to premature newborns in the intensive care unit may improve growth of a key brain area, a new study suggests.

The thalamus relays sensory data from the body to the rest of the brain, where it registers as pain, touch or temperature.

For the study, researchers compared 86 premature infants who had a catheter placed in their central veins and central or peripheral arteries for more than two weeks with 57 infants who had a catheter for less time. The catheters act as portals for blood draws, nutrition and medication, reducing the need for individual needle pokes.

Infants who had central lines for longer periods had fewer needle sticks and fewer painful procedures. Those babies also had a bigger thalamus. Studies have shown that the volume of the thalamus may be linked with early childhood brain development.

"Babies born very prematurely are exposed to multiple unpleasant and painful yet necessary procedures every day," said study author Emma Duerden, who conducted the study while at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada.

Placing central lines to deliver care and monitor babies' progress dramatically reduces the number of painful needle sticks. But, Duerden said, some clinicians avoid these catheters for longer periods due to infection concerns.

"Our research not only found that prolonged use of central arterial and venous lines was associated with larger thalamus volumes, it also found that prolonged use was not associated with a greater number of infections," Duerden said in a news release from the American Academy of Neurology.

A few weeks after birth, babies had brain scans to measure the size of their thalamus. Then, they were followed up at an average age of 5 years.

Those with a larger thalamus in infancy did better on tests of thinking and memory than those whose thalamus was smaller, the study found.

"Babies born prematurely can have numerous health struggles, so if clinicians can reduce their pain during the first few weeks after they are born, this could possibly lead to improved brain development over time, with a potential to have a huge impact on their lives," Duerden said.

While the study shows an association between pain reduction and brain development, it doesn't prove cause and effect, so more research is needed, she said.

The report was published online Oct. 21 in the journal Neurology.

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Posted: October 2020

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