AUSTIN, Texas — Premature babies face a number of potential health threats after they are born. But how can hospitals predict when complications might become dangerous? And are these signs of problems — such as cerebral palsy, autism and developmental delays — that might appear later in life?

A sweeping research collaboration of the Dell Medical School, The University of Texas at Austin and Seton Healthcare Family hopes to answer these questions with a vital tool: data.

Photo of doctor providing care to child in the NICU
Monitors in two Seton neonatal intensive care units collect data on patients'' vital signs for a research collaboration to aid vulnerable babies.

A cross-disciplinary team led by David Paydarfar, MD, chair of neurology at Dell Medical School at UT Austin, is creating a warehouse of vital signs collected from babies in two Seton neonatal intensive care units. New monitors are being installed there to collect the data and send it to the warehouse hosted by the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

In the short term, the data can be used to predict when a complication such as sleep apnea might occur — and to raise a flag to hospital staff members so they can administer care to the most vulnerable babies before the situation becomes dangerous.

In the long term, the data can be used to draw a clearer understanding about how early complications affect outcomes later in life.

“A project like this has never been done on this scale before, and that’s part of why we still can’t fully predict how neurological conditions develop over the span of a young person’s life,” Paydarfar said. “We have so many more tools at our disposal now, and it’s critical that we have experts from a variety of disciplines — medicine, engineering and information technology — all invested in helping these children.”

Read more on REthink: New Perspectives on Health, a publication of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin >

Paydarfar is leading the project. Steve Abrams, MD, chair of pediatrics at Dell Med, is serving as the project’s lead neonatologist. Mike Minks, chief information officer at Seton Healthcare Family, part of Ascension, is leading the project’s information technology efforts.