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Ultrasound scans in premature babies predict their social and cognitive functioning as adolescents

28 January 2011 

A recent study led by the Department of Psychosis Studies at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s investigated whether premature babies who suffer early brain damage are more likely to experience cognitive and behavioural problems in adolescence. The participants were 120 14-year olds who were born very prematurely (before 33 weeks of gestation) in the 1970s and 1980s. Brain injury was assessed using ultrasound scans. This group was compared to a control group who were born “at term”. This is one of the very first studies to look at the long-term outcomes of premature birth.

Premature babies who had the most severe type of brain damage identified soon after birth were most likely to have problems as adolescents. They had lower IQ and were more likely to experience emotional and attentional complications.

Whilst previous studies have shown that brain ultrasound scans in the newborn can predict cerebral palsy and other neurological problems in childhood, this is the first study to show a relationship between ultrasound results in the newborn child and subsequent adolescent behaviour.

Dr Chiara Nosarti, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Studies and Neuroimaging at the IoP, said: ‘This study endorses the continuing use of brain ultrasound scans in the newborn, particularly as they are cheaper and more widely available than more detailed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Our results also suggest that ultrasound scans in premature infants could be used to identify those who may need extra help as they grow and develop.

‘Our results further show that less severe types of brain injury were not associated with impaired cognitive or behavioural function in adolescents. These are encouraging results, suggesting that the developing brain has great capacity to compensate for early and less severe injuries.’

The participants in this ongoing study are now in their 20s and early 30s. The research group is currently following them up again, to determine whether or not early brain injuries have adverse effects that remain evident in adult life.

‘The Consequences of Being Born Very Early or Very Small’, was published in a special issue of Developmental Neuropsychology. To read the paper in full, please follow the link.

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