New research suggests that a blood test could one day help doctors flag children with cerebral palsy far earlier, allowing young kids with the condition to get a head start on intervention.

In a new study, researchers identified differences in a panel of microRNAs — molecules instrumental in the developmental process — in premature babies who later developed abnormal muscle tone, a symptom associated with cerebral palsy.

“If our promising results are confirmed in larger, multicenter studies, screening preemies for microRNA biomarkers shortly after birth could allow intervention before cerebral palsy manifests, which is typically at 18 months to 2 years of age,” said Maria Dizon, a neonatologist at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and a senior author of the study published in the journal Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation International.

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Though babies who are born premature or at low birth weight are considered to be at higher risk for cerebral palsy, researchers say the disability remains difficult to spot right away.

For the study, researchers assessed blood samples from 31 babies born premature and followed the children for 18 months. They found that kids with abnormal muscle tone had a considerable number of changes in their microRNA.

“The next step will be to validate in larger studies that our top 10 microRNAs from the abnormal tone group can reliably predict abnormal tone and cerebral palsy. We would then have conclusive evidence that these microRNAs can serve as early biomarkers for cerebral palsy in preemies,” Dizon said.

If validated, she indicated that the findings could be significant for children with cerebral palsy.

“With earlier diagnosis and therapy, the chances of achieving better motor function are much greater since the central nervous system is most plastic in infants,” Dizon said.