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Researchers Find Key to Helping Premie Brains Develop

Biochemical markers in the brain may aid in faster diagnoses (and initiations of therapy) for preterm infants.

Newly discovered biochemical markers in premature babies’ brains may lead to novel therapies, according to new research. Researchers can now use a specialized MRI technique to detect the early signs of problems with motor skills, learning disabilities, and sensory issues, potentially helping doctors intervene much sooner than currently possible.

“If we are able to detect alterations in brain biochemistry earlier, we have the unique opportunity to begin to develop targeted interventions in the neonatal intensive care unit,” coauthor on the study Catherine Limperopoulos of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System told Fatherly. “This could aid in diagnosis and in monitoring the response…to therapies that we provide at the bedside, or bassinet.”

For the study, Limperopoulos and colleagues first scanned the brains of 37 premature babies (born at 32 weeks or earlier) and 61 full-term infants with proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which detects molecular changes in the brain. Researchers focused the scan specifically at the babies’ cerebellums, with the hope of marking changes that contribute to problems with motor skills, learning, and sensory perception that plague premature children. Upon studying the scans, researchers found two telltale signs of future problems within the cells of the cerebellums of the premature infants. One marker was the distinct lack of N-acetylaspartate (NAA), a chemical associated with nerve cells; the other was a noticeable increase in concentrations of choline, a nutrient associated with cell membranes.


These odd chemical concentrations appeared to be caused by a couple of factors. The lack of NAA was associated with infection, experienced by well over half of the pre-term babies in the study. The increase in choline, on the other hand, was likely a compensatory strategy—a sign of the brain mass-producing nutrients to catch-up to normal development.

“Recently, we and others demonstrated that impaired cerebellar development in the premature infant is associated with pervasive neurodevelopmental consequences such as learning, social, and behavioral dysfunction—including autism spectrum disorders,” Limperopoulos says. Understanding these biomarkers could help researchers track how brain chemicals change at different gestational ages, or in response to different illnesses. “This may allow us to begin to develop therapies that can minimize cerebellar injury in the preterm infant and ultimately to better support cerebellar development following preterm birth using tailored medical and rehabilitative interventions,” she adds.

The hope is that, by quickly addressing the neurological issues that can lead to learning and developmental disorders in preterm children babies, the newfangled MRI tech may help kids get a better shot at living healthy lives.