According to a recent study conducted by a group of researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, premature babies have weak brain connectivity, which may later affect their communication, attention, and social skills.
Researchers also found that babies born prematurely may have troubles with processing emotions later on. The research team based their study on brain scans from full-term and premature babies.
Dr. Cynthia Rogers, lead author of the study, explained that a baby’s brain is very ‘plastic,’ so doctors could adjust it if there are any neurological problems related to birth. Roger said, however, that doctors can do nothing if there are no symptoms. Yet, the new study suggests that premature birth may lead to future problems in those babies, which justifies early intervention.
The study’s results were first made public Monday at the annual gathering of the Society for Neuroscience.
According to the study’s background information, one in nine U.S. newborns is prematurely born. Researchers believe that that may lead to other problems later in life including troubles with motor skills, mild mental impairment, ADHD, autism, and anxiety.
The study involved 58 full-term babies and 76 preemies, which were born up to 10 weeks earlier. Dr. Rogers and fellow researcher Dr. Christopher D. Smyser employed MRI and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) scans on the brain of newborns. Full-term infants were scanned in their third day of life, while preemies were brain scanned a few days after delivery.
The scans revealed that brain networks responsible for attention, emotions and communication ability were weaker in preemies than in full-term babies. This is why, premature babies may have a higher risk of developing a wide range of psychiatric disorders.
“We found significant differences in the white matter tracts and abnormalities in brain circuits in the infants born early,”
Noted Dr. Rogers.
White matter contains axons that build ‘bridges’ between different regions of the brain to form brain networks. Study authors also detected differences in resting-state brain networks that help them learn new things and develop.
The most striking differences between the two groups of babies were noticed in frontoparietal network and the resting-state network, which becomes most active when people are resting.
Both networks help the brain process emotions, and past research showed that the networks are damaged especially in children diagnosed with ADHD or autism. But the problems appear only when the child gets older.
As a follow-up, researchers plan to monitor children for up to ten more years. They also plan to perform brain scans on the children at the age of 2, 5 and 9 or 10.
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