07 October 2016

Research to teach babies night from day

WA researchers hope to be able to improve health outcomes for pre-term babies by restoring the infants’ natural sleep-wake cycle. The cycle, commonly known as the circadian rhythm, is vital to healthy growth and development.

Led by University of Western Australia reproductive biologist Peter Mark – and with the help of a Telethon-Perth Children’s Hospital Research Fund (TPCHRF) grant – the team is embarking on an inspired new study that will determine whether the provision of regular light and dark periods can improve growth, enable earlier hospital discharge and enhance brain development in these newborns.

The researchers will use tiny blindfolds and earmuffs to simulate the night-time environment and infuse the infants with small doses of cortisol and melatonin – hormones involved in regulating the circadian rhythm.

Dr Mark explains that although a circadian rhythm only fully develops a few months after birth, it actually begins in-utero with time-of-day information passing from mother to baby late in the third trimester of pregnancy.

“In pre-term babies however, exposure to these important maternal circadian signals is cut short by the delivery of the baby,” he says.

“The babies’ chances of establishing circadian rhythm are then further challenged by the continuous noise and bright lighting of the neonatal intensive care units into which they are invariably placed.”

Dr Mark says that although circadian rhythm is regulated by cortisol and melatonin, levels of these fluctuate throughout the day and are influenced by changing patterns of sunlight and other environmental cues.

Dr Mark says cortisol generally peaks in the morning preparing the body to wake while melatonin builds up at night readying the body for sleep.

Dr Mark says it is well documented that people with disrupted circadian rhythms are at increased risk of obesity, cancer and disease and that shift-working mothers deliver higher rates of small babies at full-term than their non-shiftworking counterparts.

“Ideally what we’re hoping we can show is that through short-term restoration of the circadian rhythm straight after birth we can improve newborn growth and that this may later prove to be beneficial in the longer-term by reducing the risk of obesity and other diseases,” he said.

Dr Mark’s study is among 15 research projects that have been awarded funding in the latest round of the TPCHRF.

The fund, now in its fourth year, is a joint collaboration between the Department of Health and Channel 7 Telethon Trust that funds research focusing on the health of children and adolescents.

The grants have been awarded across two funding streams – the first for short-term research projects and the second for strategic initiatives that focus on building capacity in the State’s child and adolescent health research sector.

Stream One projects can be awarded up to $250,000 and must be completed within 2 years. Stream Two projects can receive up to $500,000 and must be finished within three years.

Chief Medical Officer, Professor Gary Geelhoed said Dr Mark’s project had the potential to make significant improvements to the long-term health and wellbeing of pre-term babies.

Dr Mark said he expected to begin recruiting for his study at the end of the year. The study will recruit babies of between 28 weeks and 32 weeks’ gestation.

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