The hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, which is illegally used to boost athlete performance, appears to have beneficial effects on very premature babies. Findings of a new study suggest that the hormone could protect pre-term infants from brain damage when given within two days from birth.

EPO stimulates production of red blood cells and synthetic EPO is used for treating anemia, which occurs when the red blood cells are fewer than normal, and to lower the need for blood transfusion in premature babies. In a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Aug. 27, researchers also found evidence that giving high dose EPO treatment to premature infants shortly after birth is associated with lowered risks of brain injury.

Babies who are born before reaching the 32nd week of gestation are at increased risk of brain damage and incomplete brain development particularly of the part known as white matter, which plays a role in propagating information in the nervous system, resulting in many of these babies suffering from long term development problems.

For the study, Petra Huppi, from the University of Geneva in Switzerland, and colleagues looked at the MRI brain scans of 165 preterm babies, nearly half of whom were given three doses of the blood doping hormone within two days of birth. When these infants reached the age equivalent to a full-term birth, the researchers found that the babies who were given the EPO had less brain damage compared with the infants who did not receive the hormone.

"In an analysis of secondary outcomes of a randomized clinical trial of preterm infants, high-dose erythropoietin treatment within 42 hours after birth was associated with a reduced risk of brain injury on MRI," the researchers wrote.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 2.6 million babies are delivered before reaching 32 weeks of gestation per year and these children tend to suffer from motor and thinking problems as well as from attention and learning difficulties.

Despite the results of the study, some health experts are skeptical of the benefits of giving EPO to preterm infants.

"There has been some concern that EPO reduces white blood cell counts and there is some concern that EPO may predispose the baby to have an eye condition called 'retinopathy of prematurity' that can lead to blindness," said David Mendez, from the Miami Children's Hospital, adding that many neonatologists no longer use EPO.

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