Preemies’ brain scans reveal areas of weakness, openness to intervention

Babies born prematurely are at elevated risk of living with neurological, cognitive and attention-deficit problems later in life, but they’ve got something going for them too: Their brains are particularly “plastic” and so may be malleable for early intervention.

So say researchers who compared fMRI and diffusion tensor brain scans between preemies and full-term babies.

They presented their findings Oct. 19 at the annual scientific meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Child psychiatrist Cynthia Rogers, MD, and colleagues at the Washington University Neonatal Development Research Lab in St. Louis compared the scans of 58 babies born at full term with 76 infants born at least 10 weeks early.

Each full-term baby was scanned on his or her second or third day of life, while the preemies were scanned within a few days of their respective due dates.

The researchers observed that the brain networks involved in attention, communication and emotion were weaker in premature infants, with significant differences in the white matter tracts that connect brain regions to form networks, according to a news report from Washington University.

The researchers also found differences in preemies’ resting-state and frontoparietal networks, both of which encompass brain circuits that previously have been linked to ADHD and autism spectrum disorders.

In an audio interview posted by the school, Rogers stresses that the team found both structural and functional differences related to outcomes.

“There is work [showing] that the structural differences can sometimes be related to the functional differences,” she says, “but there’s also work showing that functional differences can be independent of differences in brain structure. So we think it’s likely to be some combination of alterations in both those places that lead to differences in outcomes.”

Rogers says interventions usually can’t start until after symptoms show, adding that the expansion of objective measures of brain development in preemies may lead to “extra support and therapy early on to try to improve outcomes.”

Washington University says the team has completed follow-up evaluations on the babies at two years old and, on some, at five. They’re planning another series of brain scans in a few years as the original study participants reach the ages of nine or 10.