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Steroids May Impair Premature Babies’ Brain Development: Study

The side effects of steroids could hinder brain development when given to premature infants, researchers have found. 

A steady rise in the survival rate of prematurely born infants has been accompanied by a rise in impaired conditions, say researchers from the University of California – San Francisco in a study published in Science Translational Magazine.

Researchers indicate the problems may be linked to the use of glucocorticoid steroids in preemies which could impair development of the cerebellum.

The researchers studied 172 preterm neonatal infants born between 2006 and 2009 who were treated at the University of British Columbia Children’s Hospital and Family Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco’s Benoiff Children’s Hospital.

Serial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examinations were performed on the infants near birth and again at near term-equivalent age. They found that postnatal exposure to regular doses of hydrocortisone and dexamethasone was associated with impaired growth of the cerebellum. Both are a type of steroid known as glucocorticoid steroids. Researchers also looked at the effects of betamethasone, but found no link to impairments.

Glucocorticosteroids are synthetic steroids used to treat asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, some cancers and other inflammatory and autoimmune disease, in addition to use to help premature infants survive and develop. They are also used to prevent the body from rejecting transplanted organs.

Typically, hydrocortisone and dexamethasone are given to preemies to help shorten the time they need to use a breathing tube and to help regulate their blood pressure. Betamethasone is used to help stimulate lung maturation.

The researchers concluded that healthcare professionals need to explore alterations in treatment after preterm birth that reduce glucocorticoid exposure and could help decrease the risk of neurological impairment in prematurely born infants. Currently, there are no alternatives to treatment that would allow physicians to avoid using the steroids completely, researchers said.

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