New research looks at brain development after premature birth

By Julie Griffiths on 22 February 2018 Premature Birth

A research team has been looking into the effects being born ‘too early’ has on the brain and how to improve the future outcome for preterm babies.

The team at a specialist unit in Edinburgh is also looking at why some premature babies grow and develop well, while others experience difficulties.

Scientific director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory (JBRL), Professor James Boardman, said that three questions need to be answered in order to reduce the number of children who grow up with difficulties after premature birth:
- How can we identify babies who are likely to have impairment so that we can target the right interventions to the right babies? 
- What are the biological factors that lead to atypical brain development?
- What are the protective factors that enable some preterm babies to do very well?

The JBRL has been using MRIs to scan babies’ brains, then using the pictures to show new ways of measuring brain growth and development.

James said: We are looking at how premature birth alters the brain pathways that are needed for emotional processing, social functioning, learning, movement and vision. These changes may underlie the difficulties that some children experience later in life.’
James added that the team is looking at what leads to brain injury and what leads to resilience. They bring the babies back for studies at several points as they grow and develop over the early years.

He said: ‘For example, one of our research projects has shown that babies born to a mother who has had an infection in the membranes that surround the baby in the womb are at increased risk of brain damage.

‘Yet, very often the mothers show no symptoms of this infection. We have discovered that if there is an infection in the membrane, this may affect brain development, and this can happen within a matter of days.’ 

The researchers recruited a group of women, who allowed for their placentas to be examined (post-birth) and consented to MRI scans on their babies.

The team discovered that brain architecture known to support life-long learning is present around the time of birth, but is altered in premature infants. 
James said: ‘If MRI in the baby period does predict later abilities, then it may serve as a good way of detecting those children who need extra support in the early years.’