Dell Medical School, Seton launch study of premature infants

The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School and Seton Healthcare Family are working together to answer questions about how and why premature infants have trouble regulating breathing, heart beat and swallowing — all things that are controlled in the brain stem and are supposed to be automatic.

Dr. Patrick Hodges, a neonatologist at Dell Children’s Medical Center, checks on a baby. Soon researchers will be able to collect heart, breathing and other data on premature infants to see why they might stop breathing or have a drop in their heart rates. Seton

“It’s suggested that there are mechanisms that explain why premature infants have vulnerabilities to suddenly stop breathing, to have a drop in heart beat with seemingly little warning and to have have trouble coordinating swallowing while breathing and keeping the heart beating,” said Dr. David Paydarfar, chair of neurology at Dell Medical School at UT Austin, who is leading the study.

To do this, Seton has upgraded the monitors in the neonatal intensive care units in Seton Medical Center and Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas. It’s also installing software to send all the data to Texas Advanced Computing Center for researchers to analyze. It expects to begin collecting data by the end of the summer.

Mariah Montoya holds her baby, Isaiah. Isaiah, born at 26 weeks, is in the NICU at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas. Seton

All the babies already have had monitors that measure heart rate and breathing and oxygen levels, said Dr. Steve Abrams, chair of pediatrics at Dell Medical School, who is working with Paydarfar on this study. “It’s been hard to put that together,” he said of all the information those monitors collect. This study’s software will do that.

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The hope is that researchers might begin to see patterns in what might cause some premature infants to be more vulnerable to these events, or, later in life, to sudden infant death syndrome or neurological problems, autism, cerebral palsy or a learning disabilities.

“To crack that mystery in the puzzle, we need information,” Paydarfar said.

Dr. David Paydarfar is the chair of neurology at Dell Medical School at UT Austin.

The study will collect data for up to 80 premature infants at those two neonatal units initially, but could expand to other hospitals. The infants’ parents do have to consent to be part of the study, which will follow the infants while they are in the hospital, but also check on them in future years to see how the data collected during the time in the hospital might relate to later neurological symptoms.

“That’s what’s one of the unique things,” Paydarfar said. “We’re collecting enormous amounts of data for the couple of weeks or a couple of months that they are in the hospital, and then we’re tracking what happens one year later, two years later, three years later”

The information gathered could change the way that doctors in the hospital treat premature infants or help them develop new technologies. It could help them better predict when an infant is likely to stop breathing or decrease his heart rate.

These infants, Paydarfar said, are normal, but they come into the world early. We’ve invented a lot of things to help keep them alive, he said, without really knowing how their physiology works. One in 3 premature infants will have a neurological complication later, he said. “There’s something about that prolonged artificial care, if we really think about it,” he said.

Dr. Steve Abrams is the chair of pediatrics at Dell Medical School at UT Austin.

The study will go on at least five years, but once in place, researchers could continue to collect data and share data with other researchers. The study is funded in part with grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Austin is proving to be a great place to do research, said Paydarfar, who came from Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts last year. “A lot of people want to help us make discoveries,” he said. “There’s a cultural enthusiasm.”