Giving premature babies morphine could do more harm than good

15 February 2016

A new MSFHR-supported study has found that giving morphine to premature babies can result in long-term impairment of brain development.

Premature babies often undergo a tube insertion procedure to help them breathe, during which they are given morphine to minimize pain. While morphine provides short-term relief, the study – published last month in the Journal of Pediatrics – found that brain development may be compromised in the long run.

Conceived by Dr. Jill Zwicker (2008 MSFHR Trainee; 2011 MSFHR/NeuroDevNet Trainee; 2014 MSFHR Scholar) as a post-doctoral fellow with Dr. Steven Miller (2006 MSFHR Scholar) and Dr. Ruth Grunau, the study looked at 136 pre-term babies born at BC Women’s Hospital. The infants were categorized according to the amount of morphine given and were assessed using magnetic resonance imaging and standard tests of motor and cognitive skills.

The results showed that greater levels of morphine were associated with poorer motor and cognitive outcomes at 18 months, due in part to slower brain growth. A 10-fold increase in morphine predicted a 5.5 percent decrease in cerebellar volume.

Cerebellum impairment can lead to various neurodevelopmental problems, such as developmental coordination disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, and autism.

More research is needed to find the best ways to manage pain while minimizing brain development risks. The goal is to find treatment that will promote optimal brain development.

In the meantime, it is important for parents to discuss the best course of action with their doctor to understand the risks and benefits of using morphine.

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