Effects of preterm birth continue into teen years

The medical and environmental risks often associated with premature birth affect the attention abilities of premature children all the way throughout adolescence, researchers report in the journal Child Development.

Evidence already exists to suggest that adolescents born preterm often present deficits in cognitive abilities and school achievements. However, because some preterm children do not present such impairments, researchers have hypothesized that independent factors associated with prematurity might also come into play.

“What we found is that prematurity doesn’t affect attention directly, it is rather the medical complications such as breathing problems, and environmental risks - for instance poor mother-child interaction - which are often associated with premature birth, that lead to attention deficit,” Dr. Michael Lewis, from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in New Brunswick, told Reuters Health.

“That’s an important finding because if often we can’t affect the medical complications arising from prematurity, we sure can affect the environment in which these children live.”

For the study, Lewis’s team had 10 adolescents born prematurely perform attention tasks. Using brain imaging, the researchers observed which parts of the brain were activated. The goal was to assess how the different brain regions known to support attention become affected by the children’s history of risk factors.

Medical and environmental risk factors aside, premature children did as well on the attention task as their non-premature ones did, the team found. On the other hand, the greater the medical and environmental risk factors, the more likely the attention deficit.

The team found that environmental risks factors tended to affect those areas of the brain associated with verbal ability, whereas medical risks tended to affect areas of the brain associated with motor performance.

“Different kinds of risks affect different areas of the brain,” Lewis said, adding that, ultimately, this information could be used to explore the efficacy of potential medications.

SOURCE: Child Development, March/April 2006.

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Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Dave R. Roger, M.D.