According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 of out every 323 children in the U.S. have cerebral palsy (CP). This high incidence rate makes CP the most common childhood disability that affects motor function and the muscular system. CP can be treated through a variety of methods, but despite ongoing medical research, there’s no cure.
The Search for a Cure
Although modern medicine has understood that CP is connected to difficulties within the brain since the 19th Century, researchers have not found a cure. This is partially because CP is not a singular disability, but is a group of disorders that affect the motor center in a baby’s cerebellum.
There are four types of CP (spastic, dyskinetic, ataxic, and mixed), and each one has its own set of symptoms and complications. In addition, CP’s causes, severity and symptoms vary from one child to another. This combination of factors makes it difficult for researchers to find a cure.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is one of two divisions of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at the forefront of CP research. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) also conducts extensive research on birth injuries such as neonatal encephalopathy, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, and CP.
Per NINDS, research carried out with its funding support has provided the medical community with most of the known facts about CP. Scientists have been able to identify new causes and risk factors. Pharmacologists have also developed new medications to treat muscle stiffness and spasticity, and physicians now have a clearer picture of how and why brain damage at certain points in fetal development causes CP.
Cerebral palsy’s multitude of causes and types requires researchers to take a multi-pronged approach in their search for a cure. According to NINDS, geneticists collect DNA from children with cerebral palsy and their family members to find genes that can cause deformities or abnormalities in brain tissue that sometimes trigger CP. Other scientists investigate events in a newborn’s brain that cause harmful releases of chemicals. These events include:
- Bleeding in the brain
- Epileptic seizures
- Problems with the respiratory and circulatory systems
For instance, medical researchers have discovered that bleeding in a baby’s brain triggers unusually large and dangerous levels of glutamate, a chemical that aids communication between neurons. Unfortunately, too much glutamate overstimulates and destroys neurons.
Investigations into the toxic effects of too much glutamate or other chemicals in a baby’s body assist in the development and manufacture of medicines that can prevent the harmful effects.
Promising New Treatment: Stem Cell Injections
Currently, researchers are developing many experimental treatments to alleviate or cure CP, including stem cell therapy.
In 2013, Drew Kijek, an 11-year-old boy from Detroit, participated in a trial by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in which his cord blood stem cells were used to treat his cerebral palsy.
Per Detroit’s CBS Radio affiliate, Drew’s CP is so severe that he could not walk, talk or hold his head up for more than a few seconds before undergoing the FDA trial of stem cell injections.
According to CBS Radio, it took two rounds of stem cell injections between January and May of 2013 before Drew showed any sign of improvement. However, after the second round of injections began , Drew was able to sit up on his own for the first time in his life.
“It was incredible. I never thought I would see it, honestly, and to see if for the split second or the couple seconds that it was happening, made my day, made my week, my month. And then now, just a couple months later, you know, seeing him able to sit for minutes at a time, it’s incredible. I never thought that I would see that,” said Maureen Kijek, Drew’s mother, in an interview with Detroit media.
Though the stem cell injection treatment improved Drew’s ability to control some of his movements, it did not cure his CP.
What Can Be Done About Cerebral Palsy?
Although scientists have not yet found a cure for CP, doctors, therapists, and other caregivers offer various treatment options to enhance the lives of children with the disability.
According to the CDC, the best approach involves creating a treatment plan as soon as a diagnosis of cerebral palsy has been made. A team of medical professionals works with the baby’s family to come up with a program that will improve the child’s physical, intellectual, and emotional condition.
Treatment plans are based on the type, symptoms and severity of CP and other associated conditions and vary from child to child. Generally, treatment includes medications, physical and occupational therapy, the use of mobility aids such as wheelchairs, braces, crutches, and surgery.
Other elements of a life treatment plan include early childhood intervention and placement in special education classes to help a child participate in school and be able to learn and interact with other children. In addition, child psychologists can help children with CP to cope with stress, depression, and other emotional problems caused by their disability.