Helping prevent brain damage in newborn babies is a lofty goal. What if a simple product, like a blanket, could make great strides in accomplishing this? For children born with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, better known as oxygen deprivation, the use of a simple cooling blanket in the first hours after birth could prevent some brain damage issues. Successful treatments could potentially allow the child to live a fuller, healthier life.

Dr. Seetha Shankaran, of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, first hypothesized the concept of hypothermia therapy delivered by cooling blankets. Early tests of the therapy in animals suffering from hypoxia were successful, and Shankaran then began testing it on humans.

The results of Shankaran’s studies were notable. The October 13, 2005, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine first published the study, and the U.S. Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health website further detailed the procedure.

Shankaran’s study involved testing 208 infants. He assigned them at random to either a control group or an experimental cooling group. One hundred and six newborns received standard care for oxygen deprivation, which includes placement on a ventilator, blood pressure monitoring, intravenous fluids and other intensive care therapies. One hundred and two of the infants received these same care measures, but doctors also treated them with a cooling blanket therapy.

In the study, the physicians cooled infants in the “blanket group” by placing them on a water circulation blanket. This blanket has a computer-controlled temperature regulation system. The blankets were set to 41 degrees Fahrenheit, with the goal of cooling the body temperature to 92.3 degrees Fahrenheit. After 72 hours on the blanket, doctors warmed the infants back to an average body temperature. During the procedure, staff monitored all participants for signs of organ dysfunction.

The results of the study were promising. At 18 to 22 months, only 44 percent of the hypothermia group had died — compared to 62 percent of the control group. Additionally, there were fewer instances of severe disabilities such as cerebral palsy and blindness. While cooling blankets cannot reverse brain damage, early studies seem to show that application of this treatment could be a significant step forward in reducing the impact of oxygen deprivation on newborns. Only time and future studies will tell exactly how big this impact is.