A new study suggests that, premature babies are more likely to develop autism. A lot of important brain development happens during the first 40 weeks of gestation and whether this happens inside or outside of the womb seems to affect brain development.
Researchers at King’s College London said that, brain scans of premature babies when being compared with scans of full-term infants, showed less connectivity between the brain’s thalamus and specific regions of the cortex supporting higher mental functions.
Using the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to focus on specific connections in the brains of 66 infants, 47 born prematurely and at high risk of neurological impairment, and 19 who were born at full term.
They found out that full-term babies showed a remarkably similar structure to adults in their connectivity among brain regions involved in higher cognitive functions, whereas the premature babies showed less connectivity.
The finding supports previous research strongly suggests a link between premature birth and an elevated risk of developing autism or ADHA, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, they report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Theoretically speaking,it’s between 37 and 42 weeks, the thalamus and cortex regions of the brain rapidly develop connections. Most of these connections form while the baby is still inside the womb, so scientists are interested in how these connections change when a premature baby develops them outside of the womb in a neonatal unit.
Interestingly, it was also noted that the premature babies had more wiring between their thalamus and primary sensory cortex. This region is associated with processing signals from the face, lips, jaw, tongue and throat. It is speculated that these connections are strengthened by a premature infant’s early exposure to breastfeeding, bottle feeding and dummies.
Areas that had a similar number of connections in premature and in-term babies were regions of the thalamus involved in vision, hearing and sensorimotor activity, which is the process of receiving sensory information from the environment and producing a motor, or movement, response.
Using this research, scientists hope to pinpoint which styles of care and medication are the most effective for premature babies. According to Dr. David Edwards, senior author and professor at King’s College London in a press release,
The ability of modern science to image the connections in the brain would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, but we are now able to observe brain development in babies as they grow. This is likely to produce remarkable benefits for medicine.”
The research doesn’t just end a few weeks after a baby is born because the next stage of our work will be to understand how these findings relate to the learning, concentration and social difficulties which many of these children experience as they grow older,” said Dr. Hilary Toulmin.