Babies who are born prematurely have a greater chance of developing autism, ADHD and emotional disorders than other children. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis now think they might have uncovered one of the reasons why.
The researchers carried out a study which compared the MRI scans of the brains of 76 premature babies and 58 full-term babies. The results showed that the premature babies were born with weakened connections in some of the critical brain networks. These include the connections that we use for focus, social interactions and processing of emotions. This makes it much harder for these brain areas to work together, especially when trying to focus on a specific goal or read social cues.
Two types of MRI were used to study the nerve fibres that carry the signals from one area of the brain to another, and to measure the success of these communications. The babies who were born full-term received a scan shortly after birth, while the premature babies were scanned when they reached their expected due date. The children continue to be monitored regularly to see whether they develop a neurological disorder.
Other studies reveled brain connection differences in premature babies
Other studies have also revealed brain connection differences in premature babies, with previous research showing that these differences are also evident during the pregnancy. Researchers at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit used new MRI technology that enabled them to study the brains of 36 foetuses at the 30th week of gestation. Half of these went on to be delivered prematurely, while the others were born at full term. They found that the full-term babies had greater levels of connectivity in the areas of the brain involved in movement and balance.
They believe that this could be the reason why premature babies often have later developmental milestones than full-term babies.
However, the results imply that the brain connection problem may not be as a result of a premature birth, but that premature birth and the weakened brain connections may actually be triggered by factors such as stress, illness or exposure to toxic substances. As a result of these findings, researchers are now looking at ways to repair the defective brain circuits associated with premature birth, with the ultimate goal of fixing the problem before the child is born.
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