Brain scans of babies born prematurely show possible link to autism

London — Researchers from the King’s College London conducted a study that found key differences in the connectivity of the brains of babies born prematurely that may increase their risk of developing autism.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers revealed that brain scans taken from babies born prematurely showed a significant difference in the connectivity of their brains compared to those who were born on a full term.

The brain scans of the children born prematurely showed that the neural connectivity in what is known as the ‘salience network’ of the brain was significantly reduced, particularly between the anterior and insular cingulate regions of the brain, the thalamus and the prefrontal.

In an interview with The Guardian, researcher Hilary Toulmin told:

“In studies of adolescents and adults, these areas form the salience network, and that network is found to be disrupted in conditions such as ADHD and autism. Premature infants are at greater risk of both of these.”

“In the case of ADHD, it is particularly inattention which is associated with preterm birth. They are not hyperactive, but have poor concentration and perhaps therefore go unnoticed more easily.”

Researchers suspect that the radical change in the premature babies’ brain connectivity could be attributed to the drastic transformation in their environment at a period where their brain is supposed to undergo impactful development.

Toulmin added:

“The areas affected in the premature infants are the areas of the thalamus which are connected to many areas of the cortex.”

“There are enormous differences between being in the womb and being in a neonatal unit. As parents of preterm infants know very well, first learning to breathe unassisted, then learning to breast or bottle feed so that they don’t have to be fed milk through a tube, and be able to maintain their body temperature without an incubator to help, are among the first challenges.

“In the womb, there is perfect nutrition delivered into the baby’s bloodstream, regulation of temperature, and protection against infection delivered from the mother in the last trimester. So there are many influences before they have their MRI scan.”

The researchers hope that their findings would pave the way for further studies that could yield treatments involving developmental disorders such as autism that premature babies seem to be more at risk of developing.

“In the future, it will help us to test whether changes in care, or different medications during the preterm period improve the outcome of these children. It is important to remember that the effects of prematurity persist into adulthood.”

Contributed by Althea Estrella Violeta

Source: Ian Sample on the Guardian website: Brain scans of premature babies reveal changes that may raise risk of autism