OBJECTIVE: Modest reduction in brain temperature is a promising therapy to reduce brain damage after neonatal encephalopathy as a result of acute perinatal asphyxia. The efficacy of modest hypothermia may in part be dependent on the stability of the desired brain temperature. The objective of this study was 1) to evaluate in newborn animals a commercially available cooling system (Blanketrol II Hyperthermia-Hypothermia system) to control brain temperature during whole-body hypothermia and 2) to use the results of the animal experiments to perform a pilot study evaluating the feasibility of whole-body hypothermia as a neuroprotective therapy for newborns with encephalopathy at birth. METHODS: In the animal investigation, 3 miniature swine were instrumented and ventilated, and temperature probes were placed in the esophagus and the brain (1 cm and 2 cm beneath the parietal cortical surface and the dura). Body cooling was achieved using the automatic control mode (servo) of the cooling system. In the human investigation, 19 term infants with moderate or severe encephalopathy were randomized to either normothermia (n = 10) or hypothermia (n = 9) within 6 hours of birth. Whole-body hypothermia was achieved using the hyperthermia-hypothermia cooling system with servo control of esophageal temperature to 34.5 degrees C for 72 hours followed by slow rewarming. RESULTS: In the animal investigation, body cooling with the animal lying on a single blanket resulted in rapid cooling of the body within 90 minutes. Repetitive cyclical swings in esophageal temperature of 1.7 +/- 0.2 degrees C (mean +/- standard deviation) around the set point of 33.5 degrees C were reduced to 0.7 +/- 0.2 degrees C when a second, larger blanket was attached and suspended. Esophageal temperature was a good marker of deep brain temperature (esophageal to 2-cm brain difference: 0.1 +/- 0.3 degrees C). In the human investigation, the infants were randomized at 4.1 +/- 1.3 hours (mean +/- standard deviation) after birth. Age at randomization was similar in the 2 groups. Cooling was initiated at an average age of 5.3 hours. Target temperature of 34.5 degrees C was achieved within 30 minutes and remained constant throughout the intervention period. Heart rate decreased to 108 +/- 14 beats per minute (bpm) at 60 minutes and remained between 115 and 130 bpm for the duration of cooling compared with 130 to 145 bpm in the normothermia group. Blood pressure was similar in the 2 groups. No adverse events occurred during 72 hours of cooling. The mortality rate and frequency of persistent pulmonary hypertension, renal failure, hepatic dysfunction, and need for pressor support were similar in both groups. CONCLUSIONS: Animal studies showed that a simple modification of a commercially available cooling system (2 blankets attached, subject lying on 1 and the second hanging freely) results in stable core body and brain temperature when used in the automatic control mode. The pilot study in term infants with encephalopathy using this cooling system demonstrates feasibility of initiating whole-body hypothermia at <6 hours of age to a constant esophageal temperature using servo control and provides no evidence that hypothermia involved greater hazard than benefit.