Each year, thousands of newborn babies suffer complications during pregnancy or birth that deprive their brains of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood and result in brain injury.

This deprivation causes hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), which can lead to long-term neurological issues such as learning disabilities, cerebral palsy or even death.

Researchers have known for some time that male infants are more vulnerable to HIE than females, but why this gender difference exists has remained a mystery.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in US, led by associate professor Pelin Cengiz, found that a particular protein found in the brains of both male and female mice is present at higher levels in females, which offers them stronger protection against this type of brain injury.

The protein is called oestrogen receptor a (ERa). A particular drug known to protect female but not male newborn mice from the effects of brain injury caused by HIE, researchers said.

The drug works by turning on a cascade of protective effects in the brain in response to oxygen deprivation and reduced blood flow. Researchers found that, like the drug, ERa also causes a similar cascade in infant mice and the protein is actually required for the drug to be effective.

They found that female mice lacking the ERa protein could not activate protective factors following HIE, even when treated with the drug.

The study was published in the journal eNeuro.

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