Vivian Biancardi Department of Physiology

Understanding how the brain stimulates breathing in apnea of prematurity

Babies born prematurely often experience periods when they stop breathing, called apneas, because the brain regions that control breathing are not mature. These apneas can cause oxygen levels in the brain to fall (hypoxia), which may further decrease babies’ breathing. Caffeine is used to stimulate breathing in these babies, but it doesn’t always work. Working with collaborators, Biancardi has discovered that when brain oxygen falls, a special type of brain cell called astrocytes detects this decline and releases brain chemicals that stimulate breathing. Biancardi will build on this previous work to understand how exactly these brain chemicals stimulate breathing, which could help develop an alternate treatment for apnea of prematurity.

Biancardi’s goal is to eventually run her own lab to look at how control mechanisms of the heart and lungs develop. She also wants to learn how experiences in the womb and immediately after birth may negatively affect the development of these key control systems in early life, as well as into adulthood. The knowledge generated from her fellowship will hopefully reveal new therapies to stimulate breathing which can help premature infants with apnea and other infants with breathing disorders to breathe normally.

This fellowship has been funded by the generous support of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.