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Catalan scientists develop biomarkers for the early detection of babies with learning disorders

The brain damage a foetus may suffer during pregnancy is sometimes not detected in the first few years of a child's life. If that damage could be detected early, psychological stimulation could reduce future learning disorders. Scientists from Barcelona’s Hospital Clínic have identified biomarkers indicating possible brain damage while carrying out a brain scan.

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23 November 2011 09:21 PM

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ACN / Guillem Sánchez

Barcelona (ACN).- The brain damage a foetus may suffer in its mother\u2019s uterus might not be detected during the first few years of a child's life. However, years later, the child might develop learning disorders caused by that damage, which could lead to severe problems. In order to solve this issue, scientists from Barcelona\u2019s Hospital Clínic have developed biomarkers that enable the identification of the brain damage with a brain scan. Psychological stimulation in the child\u2019s first two years of life is very important to reduce the effects of damage and the subsequent problems. Therefore, if the damage is detected in its early stages, the probability of reducing the harmful effects increases significantly. Eduard Gratacós led the multidisciplinary team that developed the biomarkers for the early detection of damage. It is formed by doctors, biologists and engineers. The research was partially funded by the Catalan Government and the Social Work of the Catalan savings bank \u2018La Caixa\u2019. Their findings are to be published in two prestigious journals and confirm Catalonia, and Barcelona in particular, as a world reference point in biomedical research.


Between 10% and 12% of babies have neuro-development problems and, in 70% of those cases, the brain damage was produced before they were born. There are very different types of brain damage caused during pregnancy, and therefore have very different outcomes. About 6% of children with brain damage suffer from a not severe problem that might be treated with psychological stimulation during their early years. That brain damage may lead the child to develop learning disorders that later in life might cause severe problems. For instance, it could be one of the reasons for failure at school.

The problem is that during the child\u2019s first two years the areas of the brain affected, which are not sufficiently developed, are not visible. And it is precisely during those years when psychological stimulation can improve development in those areas of the brain, and partially solve the future problems.

A study developed by the Hospital Clínic from Barcelona

More than 1,000 families participated in the study, which consisted of scanning the brains of children below the age of 2 and studying their neuronal connections. The analysis led to the discovery of biomarkers that will enable the identification of brains that have suffered damage during pregnancy.

Those tests should be available in years to come, explained Gratacós. However, not all children should go through the scanner, according to him, only two types of babies: those born premature and babies that had suffered delays in their growth within the uterus. 

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  • The team's leader Eduard Gratacós presenting the study (by G. Sánchez)

  • An image of the study's brain scanners (by ACN)

  • The team's leader Eduard Gratacós presenting the study (by G. Sánchez)
  • An image of the study's brain scanners (by ACN)