Scientists have found in a new study that changes in the brain can put preterm (born before the 37 weeks of pregnancy) babies at risk of may brain disorders such as autism and ADHD.
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a baby’s brain develops the fastest during the end of the pregnancy, This means that the brain of babies born preterm have not had the time to fully develop making them more susceptible to developmental disorders. Study co-author Dustin Scheinost – of the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT – and colleagues note that previous research has identified numerous alterations in the brain in preterm babies at, or just after, birth. This discovery has provided very important insight into the brain implications of preterm birth, however the exact brain changes that occur prior to preterm birth still remain unclear.
“Studies of functional neural connectivity prior to preterm birth are needed to isolate processes that begin in the womb, if functional connectivity is altered in the preterm brain in utero, the untoward influences of extrauterine factors cannot be the source of those differences.”
The study that discovered this consisted of of 36 women, half of whom were at high risk of early delivery. Between 22 and 36 weeks of pregnancy, resting-state functional MRI was used to analyze the brain activity of each woman’s foetus and it was found that of the 32 human foetuses, 14 were delivered preterm and the rest were born full term with no complications.
Compared with babies that were born full term, the researchers found that those born preterm had shown weaker neural activity in utero. This weaker activity was localized to regions of the brain’s left hemisphere that are later involved in language processing.
In Utero – before birth
It was already known that preterm infants were more likely to have brain changes in language regions, but the fact that the foetal differences in the babies in utero were detected in the same language regions is particularly surprising. This is because it proves that the changes in language regions were infact caused in the womb.
The team working on the study concluded that:
“[…] we provide the first evidence that neural pathways are likely to be altered prior to preterm delivery. This discovery suggests that factors influencing early delivery may also impact development of the human brain, which has implications for life-long health.
Future work will address sources such as infection and inflammation that may play a causal role in altering these parallel pathways, bringing us closer to understanding both the primary neurological injury and the optimal timing for early intervention.”
The researchers have said that in the future, they would like to continue to follow up the children in the study and monitor the long-term health outcomes.
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Source used – Medical News Today