Cerebral hypothermia reduces brain injury and improves behavioral recovery after hypoxia-ischemia (HI) at birth. However, using current enrolment criteria many infants are not helped, and conversely, a significant proportion of control infants survive without disability. In order to further improve treatment we need better biomarkers of injury. A 'true' biomarker for the phase of evolving, 'treatable' injury would allow us to identify not only whether infants are at risk of damage, but also whether they are still able to benefit from intervention. Even a less specific measure that allowed either more precise early identification of infants at risk of adverse neurodevelopmental outcome would reduce the variance of outcome of trials, improving trial power while reducing the number of infants unnecessarily treated. Finally, valid short-term surrogates for long term outcome after treatment would allow more rapid completion of preliminary evaluation and thus allow new strategies to be tested more rapidly. Experimental studies have demonstrated that there is a relatively limited 'window of opportunity' for effective treatment (up to about 6-8h after HI, the 'latent phase'), before secondary cell death begins. We critically evaluate the utility of proposed biochemical, electronic monitoring, and imaging biomarkers against this framework. This review highlights the two central limitations of most presently available biomarkers: that they are most precise for infants with severe injury who are already easily identified, and that their correlation is strongest at times well after the latent phase, when injury is no longer 'treatable'. This is an important area for further research.
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