Preliminary data suggests that magnesium sulfate, given intravenously to women about to deliver extremely premature babies, helps reduce brain damage and death among the infants, researchers report.
Children born before 30 weeks' gestation, about two months early, run a higher risk of death and brain problems, including cerebral palsy, said the Australian report, being published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Dr. Caroline Crowther, of the University of Adelaide, and colleagues said they tested the drug — the same one found in Epsom salts — at 16 hospitals in Australia and New Zealand. The subjects were 1,062 women about to deliver very premature babies.
The program ran from 1996 to 2000 with a follow-up of surviving children at 2 years of age. Women in the study were given either magnesium sulfate or a placebo.
Children of the women given the drug had 17 percent less risk of death and cerebral palsy, the study concluded.
The protective mechanism is not clear, the study said, but it appears that the drug may help prevent bleeding in the premature infant brain, a problem that can cause cerebral palsy. The researchers said there appeared to be no serious harmful effects for the women or their children.
Still, they said further study was needed before the drug could be given. "Widespread use of prenatal magnesium sulfate as a neuroprotective agent cannot be recommended solely on the basis of the current study," they wrote.
The study was financed by Australian health organizations.
In an editorial carried in the same issue, Dr. Jon Tyson and Dr. Larry Gilstrap, of the University of Texas Medical School in Houston, called the findings encouraging.