New study will explore why children with heart disease have brain development problems

New study will explore why children with heart disease have brain development problems – and pave the way towards life-improving treatments

Around 100 babies each year in the UK are born with congenital heart disease.

Thanks to advances in early diagnosis and treatment, around eight out of 10 children with congenital heart disease will now grow up to become adults.

But these children tend to do worse at school, with up to half experiencing neurodevelopmental problems. These can include difficulties with movement, coordination, memory, hyperactivity, attention, speech and language skills – and can severely affect their life chances.

Now, with funding of £174,035 from children’s charity Action Medical Research, Professor Serena Counsell at Centre for Medical Engineering, King’s College London is investigating the causes of neurodevelopmental delay in children with congenital heart disease, paving the way towards new life-improving treatments.

Professor Counsell explains:

“We need to understand why so many of these children go on to experience neurodevelopmental difficulties that can have a major impact on their life chances.”
“Our aim is to reduce the long-term effects of congenital heart disease on brain development, helping children to achieve their full potential. But first, we need to find out more about how brain development is affected.”

Professor Counsell’s team includes leading doctors and scientists who collected cutting-edge magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of 80 newborn babies with congenital heart disease, before they underwent surgery.

Now that the children are around two years old, the researchers will carry out a range of tests to assess the toddlers’ movement, learning and language skills.

They will then analyse the data, comparing it with that from healthy two-year-olds, to establish if there are specific changes that they can link to neurodevelopmental delay.

The team will also compare brain scans from each child before and after surgery, to investigate whether heart surgery has had an impact on their brain development.

“We hope we can improve our understanding of why many children with congenital heart disease experience neurodevelopmental problems, and achieve a more accurate way of measuring brain development – giving us the tools we will need to test new treatments in the future,” says Professor Counsell.