What Research is Being Done to Assist in the Understanding of Cerebral Palsy?

doctorFor decades, numerous research organizations have conducted studies, collected data, and used cutting-edge technologies to further understand cerebral palsy. Today, we still do not fully understand cerebral palsy, and there remains no cure. However, thanks to national leaders in brain and nervous system disorder research, we know more than ever before. Here is an overview of research currently underway to assist the world's understanding of cerebral palsy.

Stem Cell Therapy Research

Stem cells are multicellular organisms that can create an indefinite amount of more cells of the same type. Scientists use stem cells in a variety of research and clinical trials, including to study cerebral palsy. Stem cells most commonly used are bone marrow mononuclear cells, embryonic-like stem cells, endothelial precursor cells, and (most recently) neural stem cells.

In 2016, researchers treated 17 cerebral palsy patients with bone marrow mononuclear stem cells to measure its effects on gross motor function. After injection with the stem cells, researchers used the Gross Motor Function Classification System (GMFCS) to describe motor function changes in terms of both mobility and quality of movement. The study found that 11 of the 15 evaluable patients (73 percent) showed significant improvement, ranging from one to three levels on the GMFCS.

The success of this stem cell study in cerebral palsy patients shows that it may be possible to improve symptoms such as bladder and bowel control, mobility, and independent activity with stem cell injections. Cognitive function assessments also showed positive changes in six of the patients (40 percent). The patients required repeat injections, but none noted any serious negative side effects. The data concluded that around 73 percent of cerebral palsy patients could benefit from this treatment.

Brain Cooling and Caffeine Studies

Starting about a decade ago, scientists began researching the effectiveness of brain cooling as a treatment for cerebral palsy and other forms of brain damage, mostly from oxygen deprivation before or during birth. In 2009, the Imperial College in London found that infants who received brain cooling therapy had a 25 percent greater chance of survival. Since then, brain cooling therapy has become a common treatment to reduce brain swelling, lower an infant's metabolic rate, and increase healthy organ functioning despite oxygen deprivation.

Today, extensive research into pediatric brain cooling continues. A group of studies published in 2015 found that brain cooling in infants with asphyxiation could prevent about 5 percent of cerebral palsy cases. A 2018 study had similar findings: cooling of the infant's body was effective in preventing cerebral palsy in newborns deprived of oxygen around birth. The 2018 study combined brain cooling with caffeine to aid in the weaning of infants from machine-assisted breathing. The study concluded that brain cooling was effective at preventing cerebral palsy and caffeine was possibly effective.

CDC and NIH Research

Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct ongoing research into cerebral palsy to better understand this condition. The CDC has studied cerebral palsy since the 1980s. The CDC tracks cerebral palsy rates and demographics to track causes and risk factors, as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments. The CDC conducts infant development studies, public health research, national surveys, and other large clinical cerebral palsy studies.

The NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) conducts and supports cerebral palsy research. The NINDS has identified new risk factors, discovered drugs effective at controlling spastic and stiff muscles, improved muscle and bone surgeries, and contributed to a better understanding of how early brain damage can cause cerebral palsy. The NIH currently funds new therapies to treat cerebral palsy, including constraint-induced therapy, functional electrical stimulation, and brain cooling.