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The role of brainwaves in repair of neonatal brain injury

Project details

Dr Kimberley Whitehead
University College London
Research area
Brain and spinal cord injury
Funding type
Project grant
Awarded in
September 2019
August 2023


Babies who have suffered a brain injury are at high risk of life-long difficulties.

In this project, Dr Kimberley Whitehead set out to understand the role of brainwaves in the natural repair of the newborn brain, and to see if these could be boosted to reduce the risk of disability.  


The consequences of brain injuries for newborn babies can be devastating. These injuries occur as a result of the brain being starved of blood, and therefore oxygen and glucose, leading to the death of brain cells.  

Such injuries occur in 2 to 3 births per 1,000 full- or near-term births, and around 60 per 1,000 very pre-term births (before 32 weeks).

These injuries are associated with severe disability and the risk increases with the extent of injury.

Can boosting brainwaves help repair damage? 

A brainwave is an electrical impulse in the brain – the transmission of a signal from one cell to the next. The size of brainwaves is an indication of how much the cells are communicating.

Straight after a brain injury, brainwaves become much flatter than usual. The way that they then recover may reflect natural repair mechanisms. This is supported by animal studies that have shown that bring back brainwaves sets the brain working properly again.

In this project, Dr Whitehead and team have shown that a higher rate of brainwave bursts during recovery is associated with favourable neurodevelopmental outcomes in both full- and pre-term infants, even after controlling for the severity of injury. This indicates that brainwaves enhance recovery, and that strategies to boost their occurrence rate could indeed be therapeutic.

The second part of Dr Whitehead's project aimed to establish whether the rate of brainwave bursts could be boosted by particular sensory environments, movement, or sleep. This work was impacted by the pandemic, meaning that data analysis is still ongoing. Their preliminary data shows that either gentle touch, movement, or increasing the amount of time spent in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep can increase the rate at which brainwave bursts occur, and thus potentially aid recovery. If this is confirmed in the full data analysis, it will pave the way for the development and testing of new therapeutic interventions.

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