A 15-minute scan could help diagnose brain damage in babies up to two years earlier than current methods. In a study of over 200 babies at seven hospitals across the UK and the USA, researchers found the brain scan, called magnetic resonance (MR) spectroscopy, predicted damage with 98% accuracy.

.Brain damage affects around one in 300 births in the UK and is usually caused by oxygen deprivation. However, currently, doctors are unable to accurately assess the extent of a newborn baby's brain damage.

Any child suspected of having some damage is given an MRI scan shortly after birth. This allows doctors to look at black and white pictures of the brain see if any areas of the brain look lighter than others, as this may suggest damage. Doctors then use this information to give parents an estimation of the extent of the injury, and the possible long-term disabilities their child may face.

However, this method is only between 60-85% accurate, and relies heavily on the radiologist's, meaning the prognosis can vary depending on who assesses the scan, and where the scan is done.

Hence health professionals can only confirm if a child has lasting brain damage when they reach two years old, by assessing whether a youngster has achieved their development goals such as walking and talking.

Oxygen deprivation

In the new study, led by Imperial College London, scientists used MR spectroscopy to assess the health of brain cells in an area called the thalamus, which coordinates some functions including movement and is usually most damaged by oxygen deprivation.

The scan tests explicitly for a compound called N-acetylaspartate – high levels of which are found in healthy brain cells, called neurons. A scale of 9-10 is found in healthy neurons, whereas a range of 3-4 indicates damage.

Dr. Sudhin Thayyil, study author and Director of the Centre for Perinatal Neuroscience in Imperial's Department of Medicine said: "At the moment parents have an incredibly anxious two-year wait before they can be reliably informed if their child has any long-lasting brain damage." 

"But our trial the largest of its kind suggests this additional test, which will require just 15 minutes extra in an MRI scan, could give parents an answer when their child is just a couple of weeks old. This will help them plan for the future, and get the care and resources in place to support their child's long-term development," said Thayyil.

In the trial, funded by the National Institute for Health Research and the Medical Research Council, all of the babies had received so-called cooling therapy immediately after birth. This is now a routine treatment for newborns with suspected brain damage and involves placing a baby on a special mat that reduces their body temperature by four degrees.

Evidence has shown that cooling the body can help reduce the extent of brain damage and reduce the risk of long-term disabilities. The babies then had their brain scan soon after this therapy, and detailed developmental assessment at two years of age. The results suggested the MR spectroscopy at two weeks accurately predicted the level of toddler's development at two years old.