The popular blue pill has a few tricks up its sleeve: sildenafil, sold under the brand name Viagra, could help repair the brains of babies who lack oxygen at birth. A laboratory study led by Dr. Pia Wintermark, pediatrician and neonatologist at the Montréal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre and director of the NeoBrainLab, has reported highly promising results—so promising, in fact, that Health Canada has given the green light to a protocol to test the medication on some 20 newborns suffering from birth asphyxia.
Health Canada has given the green light to a protocol to test the medication on some 20 newborns suffering from birth asphyxia.
Complications during childbirth can cause a newborn to lack oxygen or blood, triggering brain damage that may lead to learning and development disabilities, cerebral palsy and even death. Currently, there is only one treatment for babies with birth asphyxia: hypothermia. A baby’s body temperature is lowered to 33.5˚C for 72 hours so the child’s brain can rest and recover from the lack of blood or oxygen. Several studies confirm that hypothermia helps curb neurological damage but only in one out of seven babies. Why? Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to take a closer look at babies’ brains, Dr. Wintermark and her team observed that cold does not always prevent the harmful increase in blood flow to the brain.
To quickly identify at-risk children, the researchers made imaging an integral part of the cooling treatment—a first in the field. Their findings? On the second day of the hypothermia treatment, it is already possible to pinpoint the brain damage and begin the experimental sildenafil treatment. The drug activates the brain repair processes by reducing inflammation and supporting neuron recovery. By administering sildenafil, the experts hope to lessen the effects of the asphyxia. They’ve created the NeoBrainParents website to provide information in plain language for parents and those who want to learn more about the treatment.