For years, we’ve believed that the cognitive delay of preemies later in life was connected to their early birth. However, a new study suggests that there is more to it than being born preterm; in fact, there are many factors, including social demographics that could determine whether or not a premature infant catches up with its peers.
“Every year, 10% of Australian babies are born preterm, and many studies have shown that these children often have cognitive difficulties in childhood,” lead author of the Journal of Pediatrics published study, told Science Daily. “This new study has some positive news. We looked at the factors that determine cognitive abilities in early adolescence and found that whether or not you were born preterm appears to play a relatively minor role. Of significantly more important is the degree of social disadvantage you experienced in your early life after birth, although genetics is important.”
The study, which was conducted by Research Officer Dr. Luke Schneider, assessed the cognitive abilities of 145 preterm and term-born children that had reached the age of 12. Data on social disadvantages at the time of birth and at the time of the cognitive assessment were also taken into consideration.
“The results of our study provide further proof that those born at term tend to have cognitive abilities – such as working memory, brain processing efficiency, and general intellectual ability,” Dr. Schneider told Science Daily. “But the postnatal environment seems to be playing an important role in whether or not a preterm child is able to overcome that initial risk of reduced brain development.”
In fact, Schneider says that, while the “reduced connectivity in the brain, associated with microstructural abnormalities” are likely the contributing factor to cognitive deficits in preterm children, “the abnormalities [also] seem to be amenable to improvement depending on the environment the child grows up in, particularly as an infant, and might account for why some preterm children do better than others.”
“What we don’t know yet is how different factors in the home environment drive specific aspects of brain development,” Dr. Pitcher said. “But early nutrition and enrichment through physical and intellectual stimulation are likely to have key roles.”
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