TUESDAY, Nov. 26, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Premature infants
with no obvious problems in the structure of their brains may still
have subtle chemical differences compared with full-term babies, a
new study finds.
Researchers said it's not clear if these microscopic differences
are actually signs of trouble. But they hope that a deeper
understanding of preemies' brain development will eventually be
useful in improving their outlook.
"Many premature infants are healthy, but they are at increased risk of problems," said lead researcher Stefan Bluml, of Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Those problems can include learning disabilities, behavioral issues -- such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder -- and autism.
To gain more insight into preemie brain development, Bluml's
team used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to image infants'
brains on the microscopic level.
All 81 babies in the study -- 30 preterm and 51 full-term -- had
normal brain structure, based on standard MRI scans. But when the
researchers used MRS, they saw "biochemical" differences between
the premature and full-term infants.
In general, the preemies showed an "early start" in the brain's
white matter development, which put it out of sync with the
maturation of the brain's gray matter. Gray matter can be seen as
the brain's information-processing centers, while white matter is
like the wiring connecting those centers.
Bluml described it as a "false start" in preemies' white matter
development, and the trigger appears to take place after birth.
It's not clear what that trigger is, but one possibility, according
to Bluml, is oxygen.
The fetal brain, he explained, is designed to develop in a
low-oxygen environment. At birth, babies are thrust into a much
more oxygen-rich world, and preemies' brains might not be quite
ready for that.
Still, it's not clear if the brain differences Bluml's team
found are "bad." "These might be necessary compensatory
mechanisms," Bluml said. "At present, it's not clear. We're just
saying there are differences."
The findings are scheduled for presentation Sunday at the
Radiological Society of North America annual meeting, in Chicago.
Research presented at meetings should be viewed as preliminary
until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
One expert agreed that the significance is unknown. But it would
be interesting to follow these infants over time, to see if the
chemical differences are associated with any learning or behavior
issues later, said Dr. Madhavi Koneru, a neonatologist who treats
newborns at McLane Children's Hospital at Scott & White in
"What does this mean down the road? That's what we want to know," Koneru said.
In recent years, medical advances have allowed more and more of
the tiniest preemies to survive. But, Koneru said, "surviving is
not enough. We want them to thrive."
She said she thinks that brain-imaging research like this will
one day aid in improving preemies' outcomes.
For now, Bluml said, they are just trying to map the course that
preemies' brain maturation typically takes. "Our goal is to
establish certain landmarks of brain development," he said.
Eventually, he added, MRS scans could potentially be used to
evaluate whether a therapy for preterm babies is actually having an
effect on brain development.
The March of Dimes has more on
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