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Canadians united for the brain of newborns and infants

Posted March 17, 2015

The Sainte-Justine University Hospital Center (CHU Sainte-Justine) and the University of Montreal (Université de Montréal), announced yesterday the creation of a pan-Canadian platform, with a mission to ensure a healthy future for newborns at risk of brain damage. For the first time in Canada, the Canadian Newborn Brain Imaging Platform brings together the strengths of clinicians, pediatric neurologists, neuroradiologists and scientists from across Canada. With a presence in every Canadian health care institution, university and research center that is active in the field of neonatology, they will share expertise and knowledge in the aim of developing, standardizing and implementing brain imaging tools and equipment, as well as drugs and best practices.

Cerebral palsy, autism, severe hyperactivity and developmental delay are often caused by a brain injury that occurs within the first weeks of life. “Preventing brain damage at birth may change an entire life,” says the head of the National Platform and pediatrician Gregory Lodygensky at Sainte-Justine, whose research work focuses on the impact of prematurity on brain development. “Extreme prematurity, birth asphyxia or congenital heart defects make infants more susceptible to brain damage. Gaining a clear understanding of what causes this is critical for improving the outcomes for these children in the long term. So is the adoption of best practices in terms of early detection, and the development of more effective drugs,” adds Lodygensky, who is also an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Université de Montréal.

A Canadian brain imaging registry

Until now, when trying to collect magnetic resonance images (MRIs), doctors and researchers would manage to gather the data of a couple of hundred of babies at the very most. The National Platform will include a nationwide imaging registry that contains the data of thousands of infants. “There were huge variations across the country in terms of image type, acquisition quality, and MRI interpretation. With an access to thousands of images of comparable quality, specialists will be in a better position to detect, diagnose, and identify interventions that are truly customized to a child’s condition,” said Lionel Carmant, a neurologist and researcher in the fields of epilepsy and neurodevelopment at CHU Sainte-Justine and professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Université de Montréal. He said the sharing of images across the country should also help defining the best risk indicators in infants.

A framework for assessing new drugs

The National Platform will serve as a backbone for scientists in the assessment of the potential positive and negative effects of various therapies on brain maturation. As such, it will enable the conduction of multicenter studies with infants – born from Halifax to Vancouver. “We are at the dawning of a new era for drug development,” said Lodygensky. The framework provides researchers with leading-edge expertise in the field of neonatal imaging and a standardized set of tools and protocols for image acquisition. “Equipped with such validated tools, scientists will be able to pool the analysis of MRIs in order to assess new drugs for their protective effect on infant brain and, conversely, to assess drugs targeted to treat other diseases for their potential adverse effect on brain maturation,” he added.

A long-term support for families

The need for management and follow-up of children year after year and communication with parents was also taken into account. “Brain injuries may cause side effects over the long term as well as late effects. A structure must be put in place to communicate with parents about developmental interventions they can implement in the hospital and at home as the child grows,” said Thuy Mai Luu, pediatrician, epidemiologist and researcher at CHU Sainte-Justine, and assistant clinical professor in the Department of pediatrics at Université de Montréal. Together with Julie Gosselin, occupational therapist and researcher at CHU Sainte-Justine, and professor at the School of Rehabilitation at Université de Montréal, they head the knowledge transfer component of the National Platform. Being both specialists of the medical and neurodevelopmental outcomes of newborns at risk, they want to take advantage of the National Platform to implement tools such as a web site that will help physicians and researchers to partner with families in the adoption of new therapies, and stay in touch to get their feedback, plan the care to be provided, insure a follow-up and give them assistance, support and advice – regardless of their social situation or geographical location.

Anne Gallagher, an research expert in neuropsychology, epilepsy and brain imaging, Sarah Lippé, whose research work focuses on the brain and cognitive development of toddlers and children, as well as Mathieu Dehaes, a specialist in the development of non-invasive image acquisition instruments for paediatrics, are also among the researchers at CHU Sainte-Justine and professors at Université de Montréal who will contribute to the National Platform.

In connection with its major “Healing More Better” fundraiser, the CHU Sainte-Justine Foundation (the Foundation) supports leading projects in the fields of neurodevelopment and perinatology among others, including through the contribution of the Young Leaders Circle, which is committed to the development of the field of neonatology. As such, the Foundation is a major financial partner of this $2.7 million project, with a $800,000 contribution, along with the financial support of the Brain Canada Foundation, through the Canada Brain Research Fund public-private partnership with the Government of Canada, the Hospital for Sick Children, the Child & Family Research Institute, and the University of British Columbia.

“The Brain Canada Foundation is proud to support the Canadian Newborn Brain Imaging Platform. Through the Canada Brain Research Fund, the Brain Canada Foundation and the Government of Canada are matching the funds raised from donors and partners to support this nationwide registry–assessed by an independent, international panel of experts to be paradigm-changing. By linking clinicians, neurologists, neuroradiologists and scientists, we will more rapidly be able to share and further advance knowledge and expertise, which will critically impact the outcomes and best practices for newborns at risk of brain damage,” said Inez Jabalpurwala President and CEO, Brain Canada Foundation.

In the opinion of Maud Cohen, president and executive director of CHU Sainte-Justine Foundation, “the novel National Platform shall make Canada a world leader in neonatal neuroscience.”

Source: University of Montreal

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