University of Leicester eBulletin

Major Research Project for Birth Disorder

September 2002
No 204

Cerebral palsy in babies is the single most common human birth disorder, affecting three out of every 1,000 live births in the West, with even higher numbers in the developing world.   It is particularly prevalent among premature babies, and with the increasing sophistication of medical techniques more premature babies now survive birth.

Yet until now cerebral palsy has not received the attention it deserves, nor have the basic mechanisms of the disorder been studied thoroughly.

This is the opinion of Dr Robert Fern, who has recently moved from the University of Washington, Seattle, in the USA to the Department of Cell Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Leicester, UK, where he will continue his research into this under-represented area.

So important is his research in the eyes of the American National Institute of Health - a major source of research funding in the US - that they have taken the rare step of allowing him to bring funding amounting to $1.4 million with him to his Leicester laboratory. The funding is for five years, and Dr Fern hopes that it will allow him to make progress towards a better understanding of cerebral palsy.

Dr Fern commented:  “The nature of the work we do involves very fundamental science on how brain cells are damaged through disease. We look at changes in ion concentration in the cells and see how these correlate to cell injury. This work involves the use of fluorescent dye and has already shown that rises in the concentration of certain ions inside cells is fundamental to the subsequent injury of the cell.

“This area of study has been chronically under-investigated, probably for social reasons.   Cerebral Palsy is so common, and since it generally occurs in utero, patients with the disorder will have to live with it for the whole extent of their lives. There is no remedy, no intervention, nothing.  

“Parents tend to keep children with cerebral palsy out of the spotlight, perhaps because they may have disorders in movement, speech, or sometimes mental capacity. There are never any major campaigns for funding.

“Our long-term goals are to investigate the mechanisms that underlie this type of brain injury, especially in the developing brain, so that such events can eventually be prevented.”

NOTE TO EDITORS:   Further information is available from Dr Robert Fern, University of Leicester Department of Cell Physiology and Pharmacology, telephone +44 (0)116 252 3098, facsimile +44 (0)116 252 5045, email

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