Update on mechanisms of the pathophysiology of neonatal encephalopathy

Semin Fetal Neonatal Med. 2021 Oct;26(5):101267. doi: 10.1016/j.siny.2021.101267. Epub 2021 Jul 8.


Therapeutic hypothermia is now well established to significantly improve survival without disability after neonatal encephalopathy (NE). To further improve outcomes, we need to better understand the mechanisms of brain injury. The central finding, which offers the potential for neuroprotective and neurorestorative interventions, is that brain damage after perinatal hypoxia-ischemia evolves slowly over time. Although brain cells may die during profound hypoxia-ischemia, even after surprisingly severe insults many cells show transient recovery of oxidative metabolism during a "latent" phase characterized by actively suppressed neural metabolism and activity. Critically, after moderate to severe hypoxia-ischemia, this transient recovery is followed after ~6 h by a phase of secondary deterioration, with delayed seizures, failure of mitochondrial function, cytotoxic edema, and cell death over ~72 h. This is followed by a tertiary phase of remodeling and recovery. This review discusses the mechanisms of injury that occur during the primary, latent, secondary and tertiary phases of injury and potential treatments that target one or more of these phases. By analogy with therapeutic hypothermia, treatment as early as possible in the latent phase is likely to have the greatest potential to prevent injury ("neuroprotection"). In the secondary phase of injury, anticonvulsants can attenuate seizures, but show limited neuroprotection. Encouragingly, there is now increasing preclinical evidence that late, neurorestorative interventions have potential to improve long-term outcomes.

Keywords: Anoxic depolarization; Connexin Hemichannels; Neonatal enceophalopathy; Neurorestoration; Seizures; Tertiary cell loss; Therapeutic hypothermia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain
  • Brain Injuries* / complications
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypothermia, Induced*
  • Hypoxia-Ischemia, Brain* / complications
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Newborn, Diseases* / therapy
  • Pregnancy