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Study Finds Link Between Premature Birth And Risks For Mental Illness

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According to a new study, babies born prematurely have a greater risk of acquiring mental and neurological problems.

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine found that preterm babies are more prone to neurological disorders, most probably due to underdeveloped networking connections in areas of the brain in charge of attention, communication and understanding emotions.

Lead author Dr. Cynthia Rogers said that early in life, the brain is very responsive to interventions that could modify it to function normally if indications of mental disorders are picked up as it onsets.

"What we're trying to do is develop objective measures of brain development in (premature babies)...so that we can then intervene with extra support and therapy early on to try to improve outcomes," Rogers explained.

One out of every nine babies in the U.S. are born prematurely, leaving many babies at risk for developing mental disorders like autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to be able to understand better how premature baby brains work. They were able to compare the brains of 76 babies born at least 10 weeks earlier with the brains of 58 full term babies.

According to the results, some key areas in the brain's networking system, mainly those involved in attention, emotion and communication, were weaker in premature babies than term ones.

The study findings, presented at the annual Neurosicence 2015, a scientific meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, prove that, while most of the premature babies can go on living without health problems, they are prone to mental and psychiatric disorders.

"We 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.

Researchers said that the public should be aware of the increased risk of mental health problems in premature babies and that gestational age should be part of the patient history assessment when checking for such disorders.

Further investigation is still warranted to determine the relationship between pre-term birth and increased risk for psychiatric problems.

"We want to look at the evolution of brain development in full-term versus preterm babies, and we want to know how that may affect who is impaired and who is not," Rogers concluded.

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