Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have developed a new technique that may help treat harmful breathing problems in babies born prematurely.
According to Dr Ronald Harper, a distinguished professor of neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, even newborns have the innate mechanism that triggers increased breathing.
“When our feet hit the ground running, we flex muscles and joints that have nerve fibers leading to the brain which signal that the body is running,” he said. “This message is coupled with another set of fibers to parts of the brain that regulate breathing and sends a signal that those parts need to increase breathing. Fortunately, that coupling exists even in extremely young infants.”
The idea to use an external breathing device to treat apnea of prematurity arose over a cup of coffee between Harper and Dr Kalpashri Kesavan, a neonatologist at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, when the conversation turned to how a baby’s breathing could be supported if the brain was told the baby was running or walking.
Harper’s lab, which focuses on brain mechanisms that drive breathing during sleep, had already developed a device that he had intended to test for treating people with breathing problems. The device is a pager-sized box with wires that connect to small disks which are placed on the skin over the joints of the feet and hands. (Placing them on the hands is another nod to how the human body evolved: Early humans ran on all fours, so nerves in the hands are still involved in signaling the brain that the body is running.) Once the battery-powered machine is turned on, the disks gently vibrate, which triggers nerve fibers to alert the brain that the limb is moving.
“We thought that if this reflex were going to work for any kind of sleep disorder with breathing problems, then premature infants would be the No. 1 target, because breathing stoppages are so common and have the potential to do so much injury,” Kesavan said. “It’s almost like it was naturally made for them.”