NEW YORK - Doctors can cut the risk of cerebral palsy in half for very premature babies by giving their mothers magnesium sulfate just before they give birth, new research shows.
The mineral compound, also known as Epsom salts, is already used to treat pregnancy-related high blood pressure and to stop early labor. Doctors should consider giving it to women about to deliver an extremely preterm infant, said one of the researchers, Dr. John Thorp of the University of North Carolina.
"It's cheap. It's readily available. It doesn't harm anybody. I think it will be widely adopted," said Thorp.
The research was led by Dr. Dwight Rouse at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was presented yesterday at a meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in Dallas.
Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls movement and results in poor muscle control and coordination.
Thorp said it isn't clear how magnesium sulfate works, but it is thought to open up blood vessels in the newborn's brain.
In the government-funded study, researchers gave an infusion of magnesium sulfate to women about to give birth to a premature baby to see whether it reduces the risk of cerebral palsy. Enrolled in the study were 2,241 women who were 24 to 31 weeks pregnant. Infants born before 37 weeks are considered premature.
Most of the women were in early labor because their water broke. They were given either the compound or a fake solution. The infants were examined for signs of cerebral palsy at birth and over the next two years.
Of the babies who survived, moderate or severe cerebral palsy occurred in about 2 percent of those in the treatment group compared with about 4 percent of those whose mothers didn't get the compound.