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Steroids Given to Preemies May Harm Brain Growth: Study
Date:10/19/2011

By Jenifer Goodwin
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Giving premature babies even low doses of steroids after birth interferes with development of the brain's cerebellum, which is important to motor skills, learning and behavior, new research finds.

For the study, researchers analyzed MRIs of 172 babies born very early (under 32 weeks' gestation) at two medical centers, the University of British Columbia and the University of California, San Francisco. Full term is considered 40 weeks' gestation.

Preemies are sometimes given steroids known as glucocorticoids after birth to improve lung function and to stabilize low blood pressure, both of which are common problems.

The study found that preemies given the steroids hydrocortisone or dexamethasone had on average a 10 percent smaller cerebellum than premature babies not given the drug. Most of the infants had their brains scanned shortly after birth and again at around what would have been full term.

"Their cerebellums were growing slower," said lead study author Dr. Emily Tam, an assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco. "And we know from other studies that a smaller cerebellum in preemies is associated with poorer outcomes."

Mothers-to-be who are at risk of preterm labor are also often given steroids (usually betamethasone) before the baby is born to speed up maturation of the lungs. Researchers did not see any connection between prebirth steroids and smaller cerebellums. More controversy surrounds their use in babies after birth.

The study is published in the Oct. 19 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

About 13 percent of babies are born prematurely each year in the United States, according to the study. Premature babies can have all sorts of difficulties. Some 5 to 10 percent of very preterm infants have cerebral palsy, and up to half have behavioral dis
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