An overview of the ‘Unicorn Babies’ study – written by Dr Max Berry.
Each year around 8% of all babies born in New Zealand are preterm. Unfortunately, despite all of the advances in neonatal intensive care support, many of these babies are at risk of some sort of brain injury. The impact of this preterm-associated brain injury varies enormously between children but we know that it increases their risk of going on to develop complications such as cerebral palsy or learning difficulties.
One of our major challenges in neonatal intensive care is to develop new ways to prevent this brain injury from occurring. Creatine is a protein derivative that is essential for health, especially brain health. When babies are in the womb, creatine, like all the other essential nutrients a fetus needs, travels across the placenta. However, when a baby is born preterm they miss out on the creatine that they should have received across the placenta from their mothers. Preterm babies can’t make creatine themselves and their diet doesn’t contain creatine. As a result, by their ‘due date’ preterm babies may be creatine deficient.
Through The Neonatal Trust, in December 2017 Dr Max Berry and her Research Nurse Melissa Gibson (University of Otago, Wellington) were sponsored by Air New Zealand to travel to Monash University in Melbourne, Australia to discuss studies looking at whether low creatine levels contribute to brain injury in preterm infants. This trip was a huge success! Dr Berry and Melissa returned to Wellington with funding from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and the support of Hudson Institute of Medical Research and the Ritchie Centre to carry out what will be known as the Unicorn Babies Study (Understanding Creatine for Neurological health in babies).
The study will look at 100 babies born in New Zealand ranging from 23 to 41 weeks gestation. We will take tiny samples of blood and urine to measure creatine from birth to ‘due date’ in preterm babies and compare the results to those of healthy babies born at full-term. In addition, we will use a specialist type of MRI scan to measure brain creatine levels and compare this to detailed assessments of a baby’s overall development.
This project is incredibly exciting. If low creatine levels appear to play a role in the long-term neurological outcomes of babies born preterm, early intervention with creatine supplementation may help minimise preterm-associated brain injury. We believe that if this link between low creatine and increased risk of brain injury is established, we could change the nutritional care of preterm infants and improve their neurological outcomes. If long-term brain health is optimised for these vulnerable babies, their future is transformed.
We are so grateful to Air New Zealand and The Neonatal Trust for their support in bringing this ground breaking study to Wellington and look forward to sharing our results.