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Premature birth associated with reduced brain connections

Premature birth associated with reduced brain connections
father touching head of a premature baby in a incubator at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in hospital

Babies born prematurely are associated with a ‘profound reduction’ in brain connections according to research. 

A study examining high-resolution images of newborns’ brains has found significant differences between the brains of premature babies and those of full-term babies. Preterm babies showed ‘significant and widespread alterations’ in functional connectivity and a reconfiguration of the way in which the brain functions. 

The research was undertaken by the Developing Human Connectome Project, led by King’s College London and published in the journal Brain

The researchers undertook over 300 magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of both term-born and preterm-born infants recruited from postnatal and neonatal wards, all of whom were clinically well. Very high-resolution MRI images allowed the researchers to create 4D connectivity maps showing the trajectories of human brain development, producing a large dataset of functional and structural brain images for babies from 20 to 44 weeks of gestational age. 

They found that in healthy infants born at the right time, connectivity between the brain areas controlling basic functions like sensation and movement was very similar to that seen in the adult brain. In addition, the visual system developed rapidly, most likely related to the sudden richness of visual experience after birth.

Premature birth was associated with striking impairments of functional connectivity within the brain. For premature babies, the connections were profoundly different leading to a reorganisation of functional brain networks.

Dr Dafnis Batallé, a senior researcher in the study from Kings College London, said: ‘The findings can improve clinical understanding of how a baby’s brain develops and may provide a way to identify subtle alterations leading to problems later in life.’ 

He added: ‘Early identification of babies at an increased risk is important in order to develop potential therapeutic strategies. In the future, we hope to identify infants that may benefit from targeted interventions as early as few weeks after birth in order to improve their quality of life.’

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