Discovery paves the way to prevent brain bleeds in babies

Discovery paves the way to prevent brain bleeds in babies

Illuminate newsletter header, Summer 21/22
December 2021

L-R Dr Samir Taoudi and Dr Alison Farley
L-R Dr Samir Taoudi and Dr Alison Farley hope their research
will help prevent neurological conditions like cerebral palsy.

An important discovery about the cause of stroke in babies could help prevent neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy.

Dr Alison Farley and Dr Samir Taoudi found that low numbers of platelets in babies, either during pregnancy or just after birth, could cause bleeding in the brain. These prenatal and neonatal strokes can be fatal or lead to permanent neurological conditions.

Platelet numbers are key

Platelets are small blood cells that play an important role in clotting. Normally, platelets prevent bleeding by clumping and forming plugs to stem blood vessel injuries, such as cuts or abrasions, and restrict blood loss.

Thrombocytopenia is a potentially serious condition in which there is a reduction in platelet numbers, which can allow excessive bleeding to occur if blood vessels are already damaged.

Dr Farley said thrombocytopenia could occur during foetal development, but the consequences had not been well studied.

“Our research in laboratory models has shown that platelets are critical for the integrity of blood vessels in the brain. Previously, it was thought that platelets weren’t required during the early stages of development.

“We pinpointed a clear link between low platelets and brain bleeds. We also showed that the time point at which thrombocytopenia occurs determines the region of the brain where bleeding occurs,” she said.  

A pathway to prevention

Dr Taoudi said there was still plenty to uncover about treating thrombocytopenia in foetuses and newborn babies.

“The question we are now looking to answer is how low do platelet numbers need to get before you have a problem,” he said.

“We also need to identify the optimal window for when treatment should occur during pregnancy to prevent these strokes.”

A major funder of the research was the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation. One in every 700 babies born in Australia is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which is suspected to be one of the conditions caused by foetal stroke.

“By understanding what causes these strokes, we hope to find ways of preventing neurological conditions, such as cerebral palsy,” Dr Farley said.

Above: Art of Science finalist (2018), Bird’s eye view. This image shows blood cells (white) leaking from blood vessels (blue) and lymphatic vessels (green) in a skin sample, when platelets aren’t present.