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Prematurely born babies go on to develop in slightly different ways, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Iowa shows.

Kids who were born four to six weeks too early will have slightly less white matter in the brain later on in life, as well as a thalamus that is a little smaller. What does that really mean in practice?

Previous research had already shown that late preterm babies, born between 34 and 35 weeks, had more problems with social, behavioral and academic skills than their full term counterparts.

Despite these studies, not much was known about the actual brain structure of these late preemies.

Jane Brumbaugh and her colleagues set out to discover how late preterm babies' brains differed from those of babies born on time. The researched team "mapped" the brains of 32 children who were born between four and six weeks prematurely, using MRI scans. The kids, who were aged between seven and 13, took part in tests that determined their motor skills and learning abilities. Those tests included the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Benton Judgment of Line Orientation to determine visual perception, and Grooved Pegboard to assess fine motor skills and coordination.

The children's parents completed questionnaires that helped the researchers gain an insight into their behavior. The results of the preemies' MRI scans and other tests were compared to the test results of 64 children in the same age range who were not born prematurely. The results were fascinating.

The preemie group was shown to have a different brain structure than the control group. Not only did the prematurely born children have less white matter, their thalamus a part of the brain involved in regulating emotions and motor movements connected to emotions was smaller too. In addition, the preemie group had more difficulty with memory tasks that required the processing of visual information.

What does this mean for parents of preemies, and what does it mean for society?

Jan Brumbaugh, who is with the University of Iowa Stead Family Department of Pediatrics, noted that late preterm births make up eight percent of total births in the United States each year. This is a significant percentage, and that makes the development of late preemies a "public health issue", the researcher said.

Parents should rest assured that having a late preterm baby does not necessarily mean later problems with development, cognitive and behavioral issues.

The differences were only observable in larger groups and though the researchers used state of the art techniques to get their results, they really didn't have that big a sample.

Brumbaugh said:

"The effects of late preterm birth on the brain have not yet been fully characterised, and it has been assumed that there are no significant consequences to being born a few weeks early. Our preliminary findings show that children born late preterm have differences in brain structure and deficits in specific cognitive skills compared to children born full term."

We're just dealing with preliminary results, in other words. Further research is still required. In the meantime, it is hopeful to know that more accurate scientific research that looks into brain structure as well as observable behavior, are now starting to become available. This study could be one of several that will eventually help late premature babies overcome the difficulties they encountered because they happened to come into the world before they should have. You may also be interested in taking a look at: Key to stopping preterm labor found?

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