Tiny scans, big impact: Baby brain checks could slash future stroke risk

By Our Reporter
Lead researcher and neuroanatomy expert, UniSA’s Senior Lecturer in Anatomy and Neuroanatomy Dr Arjun Burlakoti, says detecting variations in brain vessels in children could prevent stroke late in life

Researchers at the University of South Australia have uncovered a game-changing approach to reducing the risk of strokes later in life through early detection in infants. Their study suggests that non-invasive brain scans for children under the age of one could identify potential risk factors, offering a preventative strategy against strokes.

This innovative research, published in BMJ Open, systematically examined 260 years of data on brain aneurysms to identify long-term trends. The study revealed that despite advances in medicine, the patterns of brain aneurysms have remained largely unchanged over time. This consistency means that variations in brain vessels, which can signal potential aneurysms, might be detectable early in life.

Globally, stroke ranks as the second leading cause of death. Each year, 15 million people worldwide suffer from a stroke, with five million resulting in death and another five million left permanently disabled. In Australia alone, stroke claims more lives annually than breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. Statistics indicate that an Australian suffers a stroke every 19 minutes, underscoring the pressing need for effective preventative measures.

The study’s lead researcher, Dr Arjun Burlakoti, a Senior Lecturer in Anatomy and Neuroanatomy at UniSA, emphasises the significance of early detection. He explains that a cerebral aneurysm—a bulge in an artery wall within the brain—can occur at any age. While most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 31 and 60, the incidence of aneurysms in children is notably similar to that in adults due to the shorter span of childhood.

Dr Burlakoti points out that aneurysms develop and rupture under specific internal conditions, suggesting that variations in brain vessels likely present from birth could be identified through early screening. By detecting these variations in infancy, healthcare providers can monitor at-risk individuals more closely throughout their lives, potentially preventing aneurysms and related strokes.

The researchers advocate for the use of non-invasive transcranial Doppler ultrasounds to screen infants and young children. This painless test uses sound waves to examine blood flow in and around the brain, detecting any anomalies in the blood vessels. Such screening could pave the way for timely interventions, significantly reducing the risk of future strokes.

Dr Burlakoti collaborated with esteemed colleagues Dr Jaliya Kumaratilake, Dr Jamie Taylor, and Prof Maciej Henneberg from the University of Adelaide, Royal Adelaide Hospital, and the University of Zurich, respectively. Their combined expertise lends substantial weight to the study’s findings and recommendations.

This approach to early detection aligns with broader public health goals. Preventing strokes not only spares individuals and families from the devastating impacts of disability and loss but also alleviates the significant economic burden associated with stroke care. In Australia, the cost of a single stroke is estimated at approximately $300,000. Therefore, identifying and addressing risk factors early on can lead to substantial savings for the healthcare system and the economy at large.

The push for early screening reflects a proactive shift in medical practice, prioritising prevention over treatment. With stroke being largely preventable—over 80% of cases could be avoided—strategies like these are critical. They represent a forward-thinking approach to public health, emphasising the importance of early detection and continuous monitoring.

As these findings gain traction, they could herald a new standard in paediatric care, where brain vessel variations are routinely checked in infancy. Such measures could transform the landscape of stroke prevention, offering hope for a future where the incidence of strokes is significantly reduced through early intervention.

Dr Burlakoti’s work, alongside his distinguished career in neuroanatomy, underscores the potential for academic research to drive meaningful change in medical practice. His extensive background, including a PhD in Neurovascular Anatomy and Pathology and years of teaching and research across the globe, provides a solid foundation for these groundbreaking findings.

The study’s implications extend beyond immediate medical practice, highlighting the need for broader adoption of preventative health measures. As healthcare systems increasingly recognise the value of early detection and intervention, initiatives like these could become integral to paediatric care protocols worldwide.

The simple yet profound step of screening infants for brain vessel variations could thus represent a major leap forward in the fight against stroke, making it an essential component of future health strategies.

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