Published: 14-09-2016 22:14 | Updated: 18-09-2016 19:40

New findings on brain development in premature children

The results of a new study from Karolinska Institutet, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, suggest that the brain of preterm children with growth retardation can have underdeveloped functional networks.

The purpose of the present study was to see if restricted growth in preterm babies is linked to differences in the brain’s functional networks, which are important for the development of social awareness, empathy and language. The study included a total of 60 babies, 20 of whom were categorised as preterm with restricted growth, 20 as preterm with good growth,Ulrika Ådén t the age of 26 months old with tests for autism.

“Even at the MR stage at the age of one we could see differences in signal strength of the specific brain networks between the preterm, restricted growth group and the preterm, normal growth group,” says Professor Ulrika Ådén at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Women’s and Children’s Health.

There have been great advances made in modern intensive care in the past few decades, which is gradually lowering the age of preterm survival. Extremely preterm babies, however, are more likely to develop brain damage, autism, ADHD and learning difficulties.

“Autism is generally taken to be caused by genetic factors, even if no specific gene has been identified. Our study indicates that environmental factors such as premature birth and poor growth could impact on the organisation of cerebral networks and possibly cause autistic behaviour,” says Professor Ådén.

At the same time, the researchers say that the results have to be substantiated and complemented with longitudinal follow-up studies. If their results hold, they claim that new therapeutic procedures to stimulate growth could reduce the risk of autism and other such conditions.

The study was financed with grants from several bodies, including the Cerebra Foundation for the Brain-Injured Child in Britain, the Thrasher Research Fund in the USA, the Swedish Research Council, the ALF collaboration between KI and Stockholm County Council, the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme, the Swedish Order of Freemasons, the Swedish Society of Medicine, the Swedish Brain Fund, the Foundation for Child Care, the Linnéa and Josef Carlsson Foundation, and Spain’s Fondo de Investigaciones Sanitatias.


“Intrinsic functional connectivity in preterm infants with fetal growth restriction evaluated at 12 months corrected age”
Nelly Padilla, Peter Fransson, Antonio Donaire, Francesc Figueras, Angela Arranz, Magdalena Sanz-Cortés, Violeta Tenorio, Núria Bargallo, Carme Junqué Hugo Lagercrantz, Ulrika Ådén, Gratacós Eduard.
Cerebral Cortex, published online 15 September 2016