Premature birth interrupts brain development
Imaging technique shows premature birth interrupts vital brain development processes, leading to reduced cognitive abilities in infants
Researchers from King’s College London have for the first time used a novel form of MRI to identify crucial developmental processes in the brain that are vulnerable to the effects of premature birth. This new study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), shows that disruption of these specific processes can have an impact on cognitive function.
The researchers say the new techniques developed here will enable them to explore how the disruption of key processes can also cause conditions such as autism, and will be used in future studies to test possible treatments to prevent brain damage.
Scientists from King’s College London and Imperial College London used diffusion MRI – a type of imaging which looks at the natural diffusion of water – to observe the maturation of the cerebral cortex where much of the brain’s computing power resides. By analysing the diffusion of water in the cerebral cortex of 55 premature infants and 10 babies born at full term they mapped the growing complexity and density of nerve cells across the whole of the cortex in the months before the normal time of birth.
They found that during this period maturation was most rapid in areas of the brain relating to social and emotional processing, decision making, working memory and visual-spatial processing.
These functions are often impaired after premature birth, and the researchers found that cortical development was reduced in preterm compared to full term infants, with the greatest effect in the most premature infants.
When they re-examined the infants at two years of age, the preterm infants with the slowest cortical development performed less well on neurodevelopmental testing, demonstrating the longer-term impact of prematurity on cortical maturation.