Monday, October 17, 2011

Preemies With Faster Brain Growth May End Up Smarter

Growth in a particular part of a premature baby's brain in the first weeks and months following birth may predict how well a youngster is able to think, plan and pay attention later in childhood, new research suggests.

In a study published in the Oct. 12 issue of Neurology, British researchers used MRI to measure the brains of 82 premature infants born before 30 weeks -- well ahead of the typical 40-plus weeks a normal pregnancy involves.

In the study, MRI measured an area of the brain called the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of "gray matter" that looks like deep folds and wrinkles, and which covers the cerebrum. It is responsible for a variety of functions including memory, attention and language. Scientists believe the winding outer covering's structural complexity, also referred to as the "cortical ribbon" -- not just brain volume -- is a key to intelligence.

Brain images were taken during the early weeks and months that followed the premature births -- the time frame during which the babies would have been carried by the mother if born full-term. Later, at age 2, and again at age 6, the children were given intelligence and developmental tests.

The greater the cerebral cortex growth was in early life, the better the child performed complex tasks at age 6, said study author Dr. David Edwards, a professor of neonatal medicine and director of the Centre for the Developing Brain at Imperial College, in London.

"The period before normal-term delivery is critical for the growth of the brain in quite specific ways, and if this is disrupted by being born too early, it affects long-term cognitive abilities," Edwards explained.

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