Preterm babies' brains catch up in teenage years

Preterm babies aren't as far behind their full-term peers as researchers once thought. Photo / Thinkstock
Preterm babies aren't as far behind their full-term peers as researchers once thought. Photo / Thinkstock

The brains of premature babies can perform almost as well as those born at full-term by the time they're teenagers, depending on the environment the child grows up in, an Australian study shows.

The University of Adelaide study also found the quality of home life at the time of the child's birth plays an important role in their cognition later in life.

"We looked at the factors that determine cognitive abilities in early adolescence, and found that whether or not you were born preterm appears to play a relatively minor role," said University of Adelaide's Dr Julia Pitcher, one of the lead authors of the study.

"Of significantly more importance is the degree of social disadvantage you experienced in your early life after birth, although genetics is important."

Research Officer Dr Luke Schneider assessed 145 young people, now aged over 12, who were born at 25 to 41 weeks.

He also analysed data on social disadvantage at the time of birth and at the time of the cognitive assessment.

Dr Schneider found, in line with previous studies, that the adolescents with greater gestational age tended to have better cognitive abilities.

However, he also found that preterm babies aren't as far behind their full-term peers as researchers once thought.

"The postnatal environment seems to be playing an important role in whether or not a preterm child is able to overcome that initial risk of reduced brain development," he said.

"Reduced connectivity in the brain, associated with microstructural abnormalities from preterm birth, is likely contributing to the cognitive deficits in these children.

"But these abnormalities seem to be amenable to improvement depending on the environment the child grows up in, particularly as an infant, and might account for why some preterm children do better than others."

He said further research needs to be done to determine how different factors in the home environment drive specific aspects of brain development.

Early nutrition and enrichment through physical and intellectual stimulation are likely to have key roles, he said.

Every year, 10 per cent of Australian babies are born preterm.

The research was published in the The Journal of Paediatrics.

- AAP

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