Hospital Clínic awarded by CEREBRA Foundation for its excellence in early diagnosis of brain damage

Barcelona 03 April 2008From a certain age on, some children start to show cognitive or learning difficulties which had not been detected before. Most of these problems, around 80 percent, have their origins in the prenatal period. This is why an early identification is crucial in order to avoid future neurological problems affecting the normal development of the child. This is one of the main objectives of the multi-disciplinary research group in Foetal and Perinatal Medicine of the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona - IDIBAPS, directed by Dr. Eduard Gratacós. Thanks to the work of his group, it is possible to act from the very first stages, to perform a postnatal monitoring of the neonate and, hence, to reduce the impact of the brain damage acquired during the foetal life.


Because of this important work, the Catalan hospital was acknowledged in London by the British foundation CEREBRA, formed by 30 different associations, where a total of 8000 parents of children with brain injure of several degrees gather together. With this acknowledgement, the Hospital Clínic is accredited as an excellence centre and is awarded with 1,2 million euro to finance a multi-disciplinary research on premature brain damage for the following six years. These pathologies are anomalies affecting at least 10 percent of the population.

In an act organized in the Spanish Embassy in London, the medical group has presented all the details of the research work currently under way. Dr. Eduard Gratacós, head of the Unit of Mother and Child Medicine of the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona - IDIBAPS explained how, by promoting research, a number of these disorders can be detected during foetal life, with the aim to apply strategies of early intervention and making a successful postnatal monitoring of the child. This event had the assistance of Mr. Chris Jones, Director of the British CEREBRA Foundation; Mr. Javier Carvajosa, business manager of the London Spanish Embassy; Dr. Raimon Belenes, Managing Director of the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona and Dr. Josep Piqué, Medical Director of the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona.

This multi-disciplinary study has several development lines, including, among others, research on new and innovating imaging techniques to visualize the foetus' brain, or the detection of biomarkers in the mother helping to detect and reduce the impact of brain damage acquired during the prenatal stage. To achieve this, an ample group of specialists formed by molecular biologists, obstetricians, specialists in foetal medicine, neonatologists, epidemiologists, radiologists, physicists, research nurses, telecommunication engineers and neuropsychologists work together.

Their main objective is to find new indicators helping to prevent and detect these neuropathies, in order to reduce the impact of brain damage in the foetus, a problem affecting the child and their family and that, in the long term, will have a high social cost. This research work has the aim to demonstrate that a large part of unexplained cases of children with disorders in the neural development are caused by slight growth delays that still today are considered normal.

Researchers develop animal models with oxygen restriction to be able to assess safely cerebral damage, and the response of heart cells to certain stimuli. On the other hand, habituation techniques are developed to conduct magnetic resonance to the child without the need of previous anaesthesia, which facilitates the process both for the child and for the parents.

Cerebral Magnetic Resonance of a 12-month-old child with intra-uterine growth restriction. Photo: Courtesy by Hospital Clínic of Barcelona.

Furthermore, the Catalan centre is one of the few European centres with a specific programme of stable foetoscopy - a technique permitting direct visualisation of the foetus. Once the problem is detected, an exhaustive neuropsychological monitoring will permit to establish strategies of early intervention and to adapt, in the measure of possible, the initial deficits to the normal neurological development.

New technologies of imaging such as ultramicroscopy, ultrasound and magnetic resonance, and the capacities of the research group to combine retrieved information, will permit the direct transference of the knowledge generated in the field of microscopy and biochemistry to its clinical application in the hospital. This transference means a generation of non-invasive techniques of detection of biomarkers capable of being measured in the mother to detect and prevent these diseases, and a new opportunity to discover new therapeutic targets from images from the foetal brain and heart.

Leslie Versweyveld

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