When babies are deprived of oxygen before birth, brain damage and disorders such as cerebral palsy can occur. Extended cooling can help to prevent brain injuries, but, in developing nations where advanced medical care is scarce, this treatment is not always available. To address this need, undergraduates at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, have devised a low-cost, low-tech unit to provide protective cooling for infants.

The device, called the Cooling Cure, can lower a newborn’s temperature by about 6 degrees Fahrenheit for three days, which has been shown to protect the baby from brain damage if administered shortly after a loss of oxygen has occurred, such as when the umbilical cord is knotted or if there is a problem with the placenta during a difficult birth.

The biomedical engineering student inventors and their advisors reported successful animal testing of the Cooling Cure prototype, which was made of a clay pot, a plastic-lined burlap basket, sand, urea-based instant ice-pack powder, temperature sensors, a microprocessor and two AAA batteries. It is activated by adding water, causing a chemical reaction that draws heat away from the upper basket cradling the child. The chemical would not come into direct contact with the newborn. The unit’s batteries power a microprocessor and sensors that track the child’s internal and skin temperatures. Small lights flash red if the baby’s temperature is too hot, green if the temperature is correct and blue if the child is too cold.

By viewing the lights, the baby’s nurse or a family member could add water to the sand to increase cooling. If the child is too cool, the caregiver could lift the child away from the chilling surface until the proper temperature is restored. The device costs about $40 compared to about $12,000 for modern hospital equipment that accomplishes the same goal.