Link to Prematurity and Autism

A recent study states that neuroanatomical changes related to prematurity may be linked to risk for neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. This study states that circuitry is affected by brain structure, which leads to the importance of creating effective prevention strategies and early intervention treatments for those with autism disorders.

According to this study, conducted by the Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles, disturbances in the very early stages of brain growth (when brain structure is not fully developed) can affect the brain’s neuro-circuitry. This leads scientists to state that premature babies have a higher risk of developing neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and ADHD.

Dr. Natasha Lepore and her team of researchers located significant alterations on specific surface regions of the brain. Dr. Lepore and her colleagues used a three-dimensional brain structural MRI to analyze the structure and neural circuitry of two specific areas of the brain in 17 premature babies, and 19 babies that were born at full-term. They analyzed the thalamus, which is critical in sending and receiving sensory information, and the putamen, part of an intricate circuit connecting the brain’s frontal lobe, involved in regulation of movement and learning.

This is the first study to link structural abnormalities to specific neuro-circuity, the communication pathways of the brain. The researchers studied the abnormalities through an analysis of the dimension of the surfaces of the thalamus and putamen, as well as compared the position of these structures to one another. Study author Yi Lao, MS, of the Department of Radiology at Children’s Hospital, states, “We found that regional abnormalities of the thalamus are associated with alterations of the putamen, possibly due to disturbed development of shared frontal-subcortical connectivity.” Furthermore, the regions in these two structures point to frontal and sub-cortical pathways that are essential to important functions such as attention, decision-making, planning, abstract reasoning and memory.

In addition, for the first time, researchers have demonstrated the possibility of using measurements of these abnormalities in the brain of premature newborns as potential indicators of risk for future cognitive and behavioral problems. Dr. Lepore concludes, “The ability to identify structural signs of neurodevelopmental disease shortly after birth in premature infants could allow for early interventions, increasing the child’s social and learning behaviors as they age.”

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