October 13, 2011

Bigger Brains Better For Preemies

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- The bigger the better! New research shows that may be true when dealing with the brains of premature babies.

The research suggests the growth rate of a premature baby's cerebral cortex may predict how well they are able to think, speak, plan and pay attention later in childhood.

"The period before a full-term birth is critical for brain development. Problems occurring at this time have long-term consequences, and it appears that preterm birth affects brain growth," study author A. David Edwards, DSc, of Imperial College in London was quoted as saying.

The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the brain, covering the cerebrum. It is responsible for cognitive functions such as language, memory, attention, and thought.

"In babies born preterm, the more the cerebral cortex grow early in life, the better children perform complex tasks when they reach six years old," Edwards was quoted as saying.

MRI scans were used to look at brain growth rates, between 24 and 44 weeks, of 82 infants born before 30 weeks gestational age. Brain scans were collected multiple times immediately after the babies were born, until their full-term due date. Their cognitive abilities were then tested at two years old and again at six years old.

The results found the faster the rate of cerebral cortex growth during infancy; the higher their scores were on the developmental and intelligence tests as children.

In fact, a five to 10 percent reduction in the surface area of the cerebral cortex at full-term age predicted approximately one standard deviation lower score on the intelligence tests in later childhood.

"These findings show we should focus on the growth of specific regions of the brain like the cortex when trying to understand or diagnose potential problems in babies and fetuses," Edwards was quoted as saying.

Motor skills were not correlated with the rate of cerebral cortex growth, and the overall brain size was not related to general cognitive ability.

SOURCE: Neurology, published online October 12, 2011