09:26pm Tuesday 15 October 2019

Study of preterm babies reveals link between brain abnormalities and cognitive impairment

Preterm babies

UK journal, Brain, has published the results of a groundbreaking longitudinal, prospective study which has been tracking 224 babies born prematurely in Melbourne. A research team including Dr Megan Spencer Smith from Monash University’s School of Psychological Sciences and Associate Professor Peter Anderson from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, has been tracking these children in what is called the Victorian Infant Brain Study (or VIBeS).

All 224 babies were born at less than 32 weeks gestation. These babies had brain MRIs as soon as they reached their full term age of 40 weeks. They then had cognitive and mathematical testing performed at five and seven years of age. Babies born extremely preterm are known to be at risk of impairment, particularly in mathematics. However, which babies will have difficulties later in school has been unknown until well into their school life.

The study, done in collaboration with the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, found that the brain MRI measures in the neonatal period were associated with performances on the tests at school-age, even accounting for any medical issues associated with being premature. The study suggests that identifying infants at risk for low mathematical achievement at school age would assist clinicians in directing families to targeted early intervention and surveillance for educational difficulties many years before impairment is detected in school. Neonatal MRI is a useful method of predicting cognitive outcome in preterm children, according to the study.

According to Dr Spencer-Smith, the study’s findings are the first that show that neonatal imaging of preterm babies would identify those that need targeted interventions early.

“This knowledge could assist in identifying infants at risk of mild academic impairments who would benefit from monitoring and referral to early intervention. Such an approach could assist in reducing the number of preterm children performing below their peers in mathematics.” 

The study also suggests that identifying these children early could reduce behavioural and emotional problems in childhood, as well as reducing well-being and mental health problems in adulthood.

Monash University.

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