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The Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation has granted a research project led by Professor Kai Kaila EUR 360,000. The project aims to improve the treatment of brain-derived diseases in preterm and other neonatal infants.

Brain damage in early childhood leads to a lifelong burden of illness. According to Professor Kai Kaila from the University of Helsinki, this burden could be reduced dramatically if the latest knowledge produced through neurobiological basic research was transferred more rapidly to actual treatment work. “Many diseases that appear in old age are rooted in early childhood development. Yet, paradoxically, the treatment of the symptoms begins at the final stages of the disease rather than when the mechanisms behind them could be addressed in contexts such as the neonatal care of preterm infants.

The annual costs arising from neurological and psychiatric diseases total more than EUR 4 billion in Finland. The occurrence of disabling neurological conditions or neurocognitive problems is highly common among very low birth-weight infants (preterm babies weighing 500-1,000 g). Neurological disorders are also often caused by birth asphyxia (inadequate intake of oxygen, blue baby syndrome).

In brain neurobiology research many key issues are to do with individual brain development and, because the basic mechanisms of brain function change during that development, medical knowledge of the adult brain cannot be directly applied to the treatment of dysfunction in the brains of infants, or preterm infants in particular. Also, it is obvious that neonatal infants cannot subjected to experimental treatments or research.

“To obtain this information, we need to use animal models. We have found that newborn rats and mice are excellent research models for studies into the basic mechanisms of the brain function of preterm infants, its defects and the impacts of medication. We have also used this approach to study the mechanisms of febrile seizures and developed promising new treatments,” says Professor Kaila.

The research consortium led by Professor Kaila aims to study the mechanisms of the developing human brain and employ the findings directly in patient care. This calls for continuous cooperation and exchange of information between basic and clinical researchers: basic research into brain mechanisms takes place at the Laboratory of Neurobiology at the Viikki campus of the University of Helsinki, while Adjunct Professor Sampsa Vanhatalo and Adjunct Professor Sture Andersson are in charge of clinical research at the HUCH Hospital for Children and Adolescents. The project also involves basic and clinical researchers from Germany, Ireland and the United States.

Translational research into brain function and brain disorders.

Neurobiology is a cross-disciplinary field involving research into micro and macro-level phenomena and into the basic mechanisms of diseases. In translational research the strategy is to apply basic research findings in medicine (neurology, clinical neurophysiology) while also developing research models that can be employed in basic research on the basis of the clinical data generated.

Professor Kaila’s research team has, for example, developed a “broadband EEG” for registering the brain functions of preterm infants and children with epilepsy. The method is being developed further at the intensive-care ward for preterm infants and the epilepsy unit of the HUCH Hospital for Children and Adolescents. Infants affected by shortage of oxygen during delivery are examples of those with a very high risk of dozens or even hundreds of epileptic seizures that can only be detected in the electrical activity of the brain but that may result in brain damage. Without appropriate EEG monitoring, most of these seizures will go undetected and medication cannot be targeted correctly.

“Our approach to many early-onset neurological diseases is totally new and it has attracted plenty of international interest. We can now offer a unique window of opportunity for fruitful work in this translational field: in basic research, methods development and the application of the findings to reduce the burden of diseases experienced by infants and in their later lives as adults,” says Professor Kaila.