Diffusion MRI has shown the interruption in development of the cerebral cortex among premature babies, compared with their full-term peers.
A novel form of MRI has identified crucial brain development processes that are vulnerable to the effects of premature birth, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Researchers in the United Kingdom used diffusion MRI to examine the brains of 55 premature infants and 10 full-term infants. They mapped the complexity and density of nerve cells in the cerebral cortex by analyzing the diffusion of water.
“We found that the earlier a baby is born, the less mature the cortex structure,” said Prof. David Edwards, director of the Centre for the Developing Brain at King’s College London. “The weeks a baby loses in the womb really matter.”
The images showed that maturation was most rapid in the areas of the brain related to social and emotional processing, decision-making, working memory, and visual-spatial processing. Babies born prematurely had reduced development compared with the full-term babies.
The researchers followed up with the babies two years later. They found that the premature babies were still slower in cortical development than the full-time babies. They did not perform as well in neurodevelopmental testing.
The authors noted that these findings may help researchers better understand the latter stages of development in the womb, which may help them develop and test new treatments to prevent brain damage in premature infants.