Mr. Ryan Sixtus has just joined Dr Max Berry and her team at the Perinatal and Developmental Physiology Group, University of Otago, Wellington. His PhD studies will be focussed on trying to understand the impact of preterm birth on thermoregulatory function in those born preterm. The below update provides an insight into this research.

Preterm birth has the potential to alter health and wellbeing far beyond the time a baby is cared for in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). We want to understand how and why preterm birth has this long-reaching impact on a baby’s future. 

RyanOne of the fundamental processes that we rely on to stay well is our ability to maintain our core body temperature close to 37 degrees celcius. Even despite temperature changes, both in the environment around us and as a result of our activities. Subtle changes in the way that our bodies respond, or don’t respond, to environmental temperature changes can have profound implications for important cardiovascular and metabolic functions. Similarly, the way our cardiovascular and metabolic systems function is tied to our ability to thermoregulate. In healthy individuals, small deviations in core body temperature produce large changes in skin blood flow allowing us to insulate or radiate body heat. Such fluctuations in skin blood flow require considerable co-ordinated effort from the heart and blood vessels.

In at-risk populations, the ability for the blood vessels to dilate or constrict and increase or reduce blood flow to the skin can be impaired leading to larger fluctuations in core body temperature. In normal temperature ranges these impairments can be accommodated for by behavioural changes – wearing less, or more clothing. But in heatwaves and cold snaps, these impairments can become dangerous as they further stress the cardiovascular system beyond its ability to compensate. 

When infants are born preterm, many systems are immature making thermoregulation difficult in the newborn period. Beyond the NICU environment, as more and more of our preterm babies are reaching middle age there’s evidence to suggest that their cardiovascular systems don’t work in quite the same way as that of someone born at term. As a result, it’s likely that thermoregulation is also impaired to some extent. We want to understand how and why preterm birth can alter later cardiovascular, metabolic, and possibly thermoregulatory function. If we can understand the mechanisms that underlie these changes, we can start to develop new strategies to prevent later health difficulties in those born preterm.  

Photo: Ryan in the Children’s Room at the University of Otago’s Centre for Translational Physiology.