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Brain connectivity weakened in preemies

Babies born prematurely face an increased risk of neurological and psychiatric problems that may be due to weakened connections in brain networks linked to attention, communication and the processing of emotions, new research shows. In presentations at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Cynthia Rogers, MD, a child psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, reports that her team is zeroing in on differences in the brain’s networks that may underlie problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and autism spectrum disorders.

BABIES WHO ARE BORN PREMATURELY ARE AT HIGHER RISK FOR A NUMBER OF PROBLEMS, LIKE MOTOR DIFFICULTIES AND COGNITIVE DEFICITS, AND THOSE BABIES ALSO HAVE AN ELEVATED RISK FOR PSYCHIATRIC DISORDERS. NOW, COMPARING BRAIN SCANS OF FULL-TERM BABIES TO THOSE FROM BABIES BORN AT LEAST 10 WEEKS BEFORE THEIR DUE DATE, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY RESEARCHERS HAVE IDENTIFIED DIFFERENCES THAT MAY CONTRIBUTE TO THE RISK FOR SOME OF THOSE PROBLEMS. JIM DRYDEN HAS THE STORY…

ONE IN EVERY NINE INFANTS IN THE UNITED STATES IS BORN PREMATURELY, AND RESEARCHERS SAY THAT PUTS THOSE BABIES AT RISK FOR A NUMBER OF PROBLEMS. CYNTHIA ROGERS IS A CHILD PSYCHIATRIST AT WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE IN ST. LOUIS.

(act) :21 o/c at risk

Pre-term infants are at risk for several different types of

deficits. There’s been a focus – primarily, until now – on

motor deficits, cognitive deficits, language deficits; but

more recently, we’ve been interested in their risk for

psychiatric disorders. We’re starting to look at early brain

development and trying to figure out ways to predict who

might be at risk.

ROGERS AND HER COLLEAGUES USED FUNCTIONAL MRI SCANS AND DIFFUSION TENSOR IMAGING BRAIN SCANS TO COMPARE THE BRAINS OF PREMATURE BABIES TO THOSE WHO WERE BORN FULL TERM. THE SCANS WERE CONDUCTED A DAY OR TWO AFTER BIRTH IN THE FULL-TERM INFANTS AND AT ABOUT THE TIME THAT THE PREEMIES WERE SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN BORN.

(act) :24 o/c frontoparietal network

We found differences in the white matter tracts in the infants,

but those included tracts that were important for some of the

brain networks that we’re interested in. And we also found

differences in resting-state brain networks, which are regions

of the brain that coordinate their activity together to perform

certain tasks, particularly in two networks that have been

implicated in psychiatric disorders: the default mode network

and the frontoparietal network.

THOSE BRAIN NETWORKS PLAY A ROLE IN EMOTIONAL AND COGNITIVE PROCESSING. AND ROGERS SAYS THE DIFFERENCES HER GROUP FOUND WERE BOTH STRUCTURAL AND FUNCTIONAL.

(act) :26 o/c in outcome

We have found, in our analyses, evidence that both structural

differences are related to outcome, and functional differences

are related to outcome. There’s work that shows that the

structural differences can sometimes be related to the functional

differences, but there’s also work sort of showing that functional

differences can be independent of differences in brain structure.

So I think it’s likely to be sort of a combination of alterations

in both those places that lead to differences in outcome.

ROGERS AND HER COLLEAGUES ARE CONTINUING TO FOLLOW THE BABIES AS THEY GET OLDER. THEY’VE ALREADY COMPLETED EVALUATIONS OF THE CHILDREN AT 2 YEARS OF AGE, AND SOME OLDER STUDY SUBJECTS HAVE BEEN EVALUATED AGAIN AT AGE 5. ROGERS SAYS THE IDEA IS TO FIGURE OUT WHAT DIFFERENCES IN THE BRAIN MAY PUT THE PREMATURE CHILDREN AT RISK FOR PROBLEMS AS THEY GET OLDER. ONCE THAT’S BETTER UNDERSTOOD, ROGERS SAYS IT MAY BE POSSIBLE TO INTERVENE.

(act) :29 o/c should target

We know that the brain is particularly, what people term ‘plastic,’

or able to be modified, during the earliest years. So the goal is

for us to be able to identify the children that are at risk, so we

can target those children with particular interventions. So we

certainly don’t think that there’s no possibility that certain

children will develop more typically than others, just because

their brains looked a certain way when they were neonates, but we

think it’s going to give us a clue who’s most at risk and who we

should target.

ROGERS PRESENTED HER FINDINGS AT THE ANNUAL SCIENTIFIC MEETING OF THE SOCIETY FOR NEUROSCIENCE IN CHICAGO. I’M JIM DRYDEN…

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