© 2020, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature. Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) is the most frequent cause of acquired infant brain injury. Early, clinically relevant biomarkers are required to allow timely application of therapeutic interventions. We previously reported early alterations in several microRNAs (miRNA) in umbilical cord blood at birth in infants with HIE. However, the exact timing of these alterations is unknown. Here, we report serial changes in six circulating, cross-species/bridging biomarkers in a clinically relevant porcine model of neonatal HIE with functional analysis. Six miRNAs—miR-374a, miR-181b, miR-181a, miR-151a, miR-148a and miR-128—were significantly and rapidly upregulated 1-h post-HI. Changes in miR-374a, miR-181b and miR-181a appeared specific to moderate-severe HI. Histopathological injury and five miRNAs displayed positive correlations and were predictive of MRS Lac/Cr ratios. Bioinformatic analysis identified that components of the bone morphogenic protein (BMP) family may be targets of miR-181a. Inhibition of miR-181a increased neurite length in both SH-SY5Y cells at 1 DIV (days in vitro) and in primary cultures of rat neuronal midbrain at 3 DIV. In agreement, inhibition of miR-181a increased expression of BMPR2 in differentiating SH-SY5Y cells. These miRNAs may therefore act as early biomarkers of HIE, thereby allowing for rapid diagnosis and timely therapeutic intervention and may regulate expression of signalling pathways vital to neuronal survival.