Research shows that prematurely born babies are more prone to developing disabilities. A new study, however, suggests that brain mapping in preemies may help to predict and prevent the negative consequences of early brain injury.

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A new study suggests that an early brain scan and injury mapping in premature babies could help to predict the development of later disabilities.

Preterm birth occurs when a baby is born before the 37th week of pregnancy – 3 weeks before term.

Worldwide, premature births are the leading cause of death in children younger than 5 years old.

In the United States, prematurity affects 1 in 10 infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also report that a third of infant deaths are caused by preterm birth complications.

Preterm birth is generally associated with a higher risk of infant disability and death because a baby needs the entire gestation period to develop properly. For instance, a baby’s vital organs – including the lungs, liver, and brain – all need the final weeks of pregnancy to develop fully and healthily.

Many surviving babies develop complications, such as breathing and feeding problems, learning difficulties, or hearing and visual impairment.

A lack of oxygen supply to the brain is the most common cause of brain injury in prematurely born infants. This results in damage to the brain’s white matter.

The brain’s white matter – sometimes referred to as “the subway of the brain” – is responsible for connecting different gray matter areas of the cerebrum. As expected, damage in the brain’s “transit system” can lead to communication problems and poor signal transmission, which impacts the entire human body.

New research – published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology – investigates the link between white matter brain injury in premature babies and childhood disabilities.

Researchers, led by Dr. Steven P. Miller of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, examined a group of prematurely born babies admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at British Columbia’s Women’s Hospital and Health Centre in Vancouver, Canada.

Dr. Miller and team examined 58 babies who were diagnosed with white matter brain injury. These infants’ brains were MRI-scanned and mapped for lesions at a mean of 32 weeks after gestation.

The researchers evaluated the babies’ motor skills, as well as their language and reasoning abilities, at the age of 18 months. They also followed the babies for 7 years.

The scientists found an association between early white matter injury and later motor and reasoning difficulties.

Specifically, a high number of small white matter lesions – regardless of their location in the brain – accurately predicted motor problems at 18 months. Additionally, a large number of white matter injuries in the frontal lobe predicted reasoning problems.

The frontal lobe is a part of the brain involved in reasoning, language, problem-solving, memory, judgment, and motor functioning, among other skills.

The study’s lead author explains the significance of the findings:

In general, babies who are born before 31 weeks gestation have a higher risk of thinking, language and movement problems throughout their lives, so being able to better predict which infants will face certain developmental problems is important so they get the best early interventions possible. Just as important is to be able to reassure parents of infants who may not be at risk.”

Dr. Steven P. Miller

Dr. Miller also notes that in order to determine the long-term impact of early brain injury, future research is needed to assess brain function in prematurely born babies not only at 18 months of age, but also at several stages throughout their childhood.

Learn how brain alterations in preterm babies may begin weeks before birth.