Cork-based researchers have been awarded €570,000 towards developing a brain monitoring system designed to help detect the severity of brain damage in babies injured at birth.
Infant, the perinatal research centre developing the system, said ultimately, it will be integrated into cot-side monitoring of all infants admitted to neonatal intensive care units.
Infant centre director and professor of neonatal physiology Geraldine Boylan said the Delphi project will create a monitoring system using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse newborn electrical brain patterns and combine this data with other vital sign information, to provide an overall brain health index for the baby.
“We already record brain patterns in neonates but this software will provide an extra layer of interpretation,” said Prof Boylan. “Currently there is nothing there to interpret brain activity on a 24/7 basis — it just wouldn’t be possible for a clinician to do that. But AI will fill the gap. It lets us see what’s going on with the brain all of the time.
“It will help us interpret complicated brain signals. It will act as a decision support tool for the doctor, not a replacement for the clinician.”
Early pick-up of brain injury in newborns could ultimately improve outcomes for the baby and reduce the impact of brain damage.
Prof Boylan said they had spent eight years collecting data on the newborn brain and training the computer to recognise patterns so that it can interpret the data. It will take another two years to develop the cotside prototype, using funding from UK charity the Wellcome Trust.
Prof Boylan said they would hope to start a clinical trial after that.
“What we do has global implications. We hope to develop a tool that works cotside not just in high resource, but in low resource settings, because that’s where we see more babies born with brain injury,” she said.
Brain injury at birth, potentially due to lack of oxygen or blood supply to the brain, sepsis and other conditions, can leave newborns with permanent disabilities such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy or learning difficulties. Up to 100 fullterm newborns suffer brain injury in Ireland each year. The figure worldwide is 1.5m.
Researchers at Infant, which is based at Cork University Maternity Hospital and University College Cork, have also developed a computer that can detect seizures in newborns using AI.
Tech companies have already expressed interest in the programme which has been tested cotside in a clinical trial involving more than 500 babies across eight European countries.
Prof Boylan said developments in artificial intelligence, offer “limitless opportunities to support our work in the area of neonatal research, monitoring and neuroprotection for babies”.
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