BACKGROUND: Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, are making MRI safer for premature babies by using a transportable incubator that is compatible with MRI machines. This will enable doctors to peer into the brain of such infants to determine which areas are most affected by the stress of premature birth.
THE PROBLEM: There is no inherent health risk with using MRI on a premature baby, but getting the infant in and out of the scanner is time-intensive process that involves great risk. Too much handling, or even a loud noise, can cause life-threatening complications in a premature baby, most commonly irregular heart rate and breathing patterns.
THE SOLUTION: The UCSF scientists collaborated with General Electric to design the MRI-compatible incubator -- currently the only one of its kind. It has already vastly improved the screening of premature babies. The incubator is made entirely of plastic, aluminum or brass, since anything magnetic would be attracted to the powerful magnets used in the MRI machine. It is essentially a capsule of double-paned Plexiglass that holds in heat. The infant can breath fresh warmed air piped in from the outside. Often a sedative is used so that the baby falls asleep, since an MRI scan is slow and can take as long as an hour.
ABOUT PREEMIE BRAIN DAMAGE: Roughly half of early premature births show subtle abnormalities in the brain that may be linked to later developmental problems. Yet it is often difficult to spot this damage early with traditional ultrasound; problems often don't become apparent until around 10 months of age. An early MRI scan can help doctors detect brain damage early enough so that therapy can improve the infant's chances of developing normally. The possible causes of brain damage in premature infants are not fully established, but include infection stemming from the wall of the uterus or placenta; the inability of an immature cardiovascular system to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the brain; and an inflammatory response at birth.