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Preemies at greater risk of mental illness

Washington D.C: A new study has linked premature birth to weaker brain connections, suggesting that preemies are likelier to face mental health problems.

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, the research showed.

Studying brain scans from premature and full-term babies, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis zeroed in on differences in the brain that may underlie such problems.

The brain is particularly ‘plastic’ very early in life and potentially could be modified by early intervention, said principal investigator Cynthia Rogers, adding “We usually can’t begin interventions until after symptoms develop, but what we’re trying to do is develop objective measures of brain development in preemies that can indicate whether a child is likely to have later problems so that we can then intervene with extra support and therapy early on to try to improve outcomes.”

One of every nine infants in the United States is born early and, thus, with increased risk of cognitive difficulties, problems with motor skills, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders and anxiety.

The researchers found that some key brain networks, those involved in attention, communication and emotion, were weaker in premature infants, offering an explanation for why children born prematurely may have an elevated risk of psychiatric disorders.

Researchers found significant differences in the white matter tracts and abnormalities in brain circuits in the infants born early, compared with those of infants born at full term, said Rogers.

The findings are being presented at Neuroscience 2015, the annual scientific meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.