Caffeine can help premature babies' brains, says study

Caffeine's benefit for lung function — a common concern with premature babies — has been well documented, but there was no data on the drug's impact on brain development.

Drug is commonly used to help with lung function but its effect on neurological development was not known

A father holds the hand of his prematurely born son in this file photo. A new study shows caffeine can help with the development of premature babies' brains. (Mike Spencer/The Star-News via AP)

A new study led by a University of Calgary researcher suggests the brains of premature babies benefit from early use of caffeine. 

It might seem odd to give caffeine to babies, but the drug has long been used to stimulate lung functions. 

"Caffeine is the most commonly used drug in the NICU after antibiotics," said Dr. Abhay Lodha, the lead researcher of the study, in a news release.

Lodha is an associate professor in the departments of pediatrics and community health sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine and staff neonatologist with Alberta Health Services.

The study was published in the journal Pediatrics and involved researchers from the Universities of British Columbia, Montreal and Toronto and the Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. 

Brain development

Caffeine's benefit for lung function — a common concern with premature babies — has been well documented, but there was no data on the drug's impact on brain development. 

Dr. Abhay Lodha, lead researcher on a study linking early caffeine treatment with improved brain development in premature babies. (Dave Will/CBC)

"We look at how children are constructing their understanding, such as solving simple problems or figuring out three-dimensional objects and toys," said Dr. Dianne Creighton, research assistant professor in the department of pediatrics and retired psychologist with AHS, in a news release.

"We also assess how the little ones are able to understand simple words, or recognize the name of a picture, as well as their motor skills like climbing, crawling, balance and co-ordination."

Reduced risk

The study analyzed data from 26 neonatal intensive care units across Canada and followup assessments of children aged 18 to 24 months.

It found caffeine administered within two days of birth was associated with "better cognitive scores, and reduced odds of cerebral palsy and hearing impairment."

Lodha said it's believed that caffeine may help with the growth of dendrites — small branches of a neuron that receive signals from other neurons.

"Caffeine may also improve better lung stretch and expansion, cardiac output and blood pressure in premature infants, which improves oxygen supply throughout the body and brain, reducing the duration of mechanical ventilation and the risk of chronic lung disease and injury on the developing brain," he said in a news release.