Around 8% of babies in the UK and 12% of babies in the US are born prematurely. Developmental problems, disability, and death are significantly more common in these children, but doctors typically don’t have any way to know ahead of time that a child may be born early.
New research, however, suggests that scientists are beginning to make progress towards eventually being able to predict when a baby is at risk of being born prematurely.
The new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that factors contributing to premature birth might also impact the baby’s brain development in the womb, which could lead to neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, ADHD, and cerebral palsy — and they are coming closer to being able to measuring these changes.
Of the 32 unborn babies examined in the study, 14 were delivered before term, or anywhere between 24 and 35 weeks. (Preterm birth is defined as being born before 37 weeks of pregnancy). Researchers measured the babies’ brain connectivity using fetal resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they were in the womb.
They found that something called functional connectivity, which is a measure of the functional organisation of the brain, was weaker in fetuses that would go on to be born early. These findings specifically affected the left-hemisphere of their brains, which is the region we use for language.
However, the researchers say that the predictive methods aren’t hospital ready yet, and probably won’t be for quite a while. These are just the initial stages, but Dustin Scheinost, assistant professor at the Magnetic Resonance Research Center at Yale School of Medicine, told Business Insider that the findings are exciting nonetheless.
“While we’re a long way off from developing a diagnostic or predictive tool for prematurity, our results do provide the first evidence that functional MRI could eventually be used as part of a predictive model of whether a baby will be born prematurely,” Scheinost told Business Insider.
The new study gives Scheinost and his team hope for the future of this research, because it confirms ideas from previous studies in the field.
“What is impressive about these findings is that they foreshadow similar differences that we observe in preterm infants, children, adolescents, and young adults,” he said. “Preterms show alterations in language areas from birth through young adulthood. Our results extend this body of literature by suggesting that these differences are observable even before birth.”
Now the team plans to look into the potential causes of prematurity, such as infection, and hope to determine whether and how these conditions can influence brain development in of babies in utero.
They will also follow all the children who took part in the study, to monitor long-term outcomes, such as seeing whether the babies in the study born prematurely go on to develop developmental disorders or other health problems.