PET, CT show lasting effects of brain injury in preterm babies

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Plenty of discussion has been dedicated to how the developing brain deals with various kinds of stimulation. Recent research tied lasting chemical changes to the brain with complications at birth.

The study, led by Sean Froudist-Walsh with King's College London, was published online Nov. 28 in eLife.

The researchers used both positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), in addition to psychological testing, to identify changes in neurochemistry and brain structure following injury.

Researchers compared 13 adults who were born before 32 weeks who sustained brain damage, 13 adults who were born before 32 weeks who did not sustain brain damage and controls born at term.

Findings include:

  • Preterm patients with brain injury had lower gestational age and birth weight than those born prematurely without injury.
  • Dopamine synthesis was significantly reduced in the preterm group with injury compared to the preterm group without injury. The control group had higher rates of synthesis than both groups.
  • The injured group had significantly lower volumes than the control groups.

“We found that dopamine, a chemical that's important for learning and enjoyment, is affected in people who had early brain injury, but not in the way a lot of people would have thought—dopamine levels were actually lower in these individuals,” Foudist-Walsh et al. wrote. “This could be important to how we think about treating people who suffered early brain damage and develop mental illness.”

"The discovery of a potential mechanism linking early life risk factors to adult mental illness could one day lead to more targeted and effective treatments of psychiatric problems in people who experienced complications at birth,” said Chiara Nosarti, a senior author of the paper.