Scientists Get Rare Peek at Premies’ Brain Development
Premature birth is the key risk factor when it comes to lifetime disorders and defects in cognitive functions. Scientists have known this for a while, but they haven’t been able to observe it to understand how, exactly, prematurity could affect early brain development, especially early activity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for higher functions like memory, reasoning, attention, and intelligence.
Researchers at the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki University Hospital conducted a study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, that involved 46 infants who were born very prematurely and nearly 70 healthy and mature control infants. With the help of an EEG (electroencephalography) cap, specially developed by the clinic, positioned on the babies’ heads, researchers monitored brain function. They then used a computer model to map the development of the babies’ prefrontal cortex networks.
“We were able to demonstrate how the strength of synapses in the frontal lobe is linked with the neurological abilities of infants,” Vanhatalo says. Synapses are the links between brain cells that make up the ‘network’ of the brain. Vanhatalo says that, with more research, this method of peeking into babies’ brains could be used to further understand conditions like ADHD and other cognitive difficulties in later life associated with premature birth.
According to the WHO, India has the highest number of preterm births in the world, and the number is dramatically rising each year. While most preterm births are associated with multiple pregnancies, infections, chronic disorders, and genetic influences, an increasing number of premature births today are intentional, via induced labour or caesarean birth.
This study is the latest to give scientists a clearer picture of brain development in premature babies. Last year, a team at King’s College London found premature babies had frequent activity bursts coming from a region in the brain called the insula, which in adults plays an important role in cognitive, emotional and motivational signals. Beyond the fact that the human brain begins to prepare itself for the external world even before the time of normal birth, the implications of this finding are still unclear, but it gives scientists one more brick in the wall of understanding the unique effects of premature birth on brain development.