Some estimates place the rate of preterm birth as high as 15 million babies each year. This describes a serious global health concern. Many of these babies experience neurological disorders as a result of premature birth. Among these is cerebral palsy. Researchers recently studied a gene known as Nodal and believe it could be the key to preventing preterm births. Keep reading to learn more, or follow the original story here for further information.
What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy is a neurological movement disorder. It is characterized by impaired coordination, and a lack of muscle control. These symptoms occur as a result of brain damage. Often, this damage occurs to the brain before birth or very early in childhood. Causes for such damage may include genetic mutations, maternal infections, and fetal stroke.
Symptoms of cerebral palsy vary greatly across individuals. Some examples, however, include stiff muscles and exaggerated reflexes, difficulty walking, delays in speech development, seizures, intellectual disabilities, and favoring one side of the body over the other.
Any birth before the 37th week of pregnancy is considered premature. It’s typically a result of contractions experienced by the mother, but the underlying cause is often unknown. A team from McGill University Health Centre’s Research Institute recently found one possibility. They studied a gene known as Nodal which helps to regulate certain aspects of the immune system and inflammation.
The team’s research included 613 women. Researchers closely examined the connections between the Nodal gene and two risk factors for premature birth (inflammation of the placenta, and bacterial vaginosis). Researchers discovered that women with variations in the Nodal gene and who expressed either of the two risk factors were more likely to experience a premature birth.
Researchers also conducted Nodal studies involving mice. They discovered that in situations where Nodal was suppressed, that mice delivered two days before a complete term. This is a result of how the Nodal gene interacts with the body’s inflammation-causing factors. The Nodal gene normally keeps the uterine environment from becoming inflamed too early. When it is removed or altered, the inflammation begins too early and this leads to premature contractions. These contractions then lead to premature birth.
More research still needs to be conducted to thoroughly understand this series of interactions. Researchers involved the initial studies announced they are expanding their cohorts to include larger groups across the Quebec and Ontario area. Research on Nodal may still be early, but without sufficient treatments currently existing for pre-term labor, it’s a development that is highly promising.