Preterm babies face greater risk of neurological and psychiatric problems

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Babies born prematurely face an increased risk of neurological and psychiatric problems, new research shows

US researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, used brain scans to compare 58 babies born at full term with 76 infants born at least 10 weeks early.

The team, led by assistant professor of child psychiatry Cynthia Rogers​, MD, found that some key brain networks — those involved in attention, communication and emotion — were weaker in premature infants, offering an explanation for why children born prematurely may have an elevated risk of psychiatric disorders.

Among the affected networks are the default mode and frontoparietal networks, both of which encompass brain circuits associated with emotion. The abnormalities are thought to contribute to problems that materialise as the children get older. To see whether that is true the research team plan to scan the children again when they are nine or 10.

The findings may also help doctors and scientists target abnormalities in the brains of preterm babies and, potentially, change the course of their development.

Rogers​ explained.

‘We usually can’t begin interventions until after symptoms develop, but what we’re trying to do is develop objective measures of brain development in preemies that can indicate whether a child is likely to have later problems so that we can intervene with extra support and therapy early on to try to improve outcomes.’

One of every nine infants in the United States is born early and, thus, with increased risk of cognitive difficulties, problems with motor skills, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorders and anxiety.

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