Prematurely born babies score lower on intelligence tests than their healthy, full-term siblings and frequently require special educational services and other assistance. One suspected cause of the problems they face later in life is bleeding into tissues of the brain, which often occurs during premature births. Giving them an anti-inflammatory drug that reduces the bleeding at birth, however, has raised hope that fewer prematurely born children will suffer significant long-term intellectual and emotional problems.

Investigators in a multi-center study directed by Yale pediatric neurologist Laura R. Ment, M.D., administered the non-steroidal drug indomethacin, which is generally used for treating adults with arthritis, to 431 very-low-birth-weight premature babies shortly after birth. In follow-up ultrasound studies, the infants who had been treated with the drug bled less and had less brain atrophy than babies treated with a placebo. In assessments at 6 and 8 years of age, they appeared to have suffered fewer long-term intellectual deficits and required significantly fewer special services than those children who had been given the placebo. Almost three times the number of children who received the placebo required speech and language therapy when compared to those who received the medication. The placebo group also scored lower on intelligence tests and tests of communication skills and emotional status.

The findings of the study were presented at the joint meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies and the American Academy of Pediatrics in May. Ment said, “Almost all other studies of protective agents in the newborn period do not have long-lasting effects. This drug does, in fact, appear to protect the developing brain.”

According to Ment, approximately 25 percent of neonatal intensive care units in the country use indomethacin as the standard of care for very-low-birth-weight preterm infants.

She hopes to see that percentage increase so that all premature babies can benefit from the drug.