Premature Infants Have Weakened Brain Network Connectivity

preemie brain
preemie brain
The functional and structural differences observed in preemies contributes to increased risk of developing behavioral and emotional disorders.

CHICAGO — Infants born premature are at an increased risk of developing autism, ADHD, and emotional disorders, as well as having difficulties with cognition and motor skills. Research presented at Neuroscience 2015 indicates that these deficits may be the result of weakened connections in brain networks associated with attention, communications, and emotional processing.

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis used multimodal imaging techniques to compare structural and functional connectivity in very preterm infants (gestational age <30 weeks, n=76) and healthy, full-term infants (gestational age >37 weeks; n=58).

“The brain is particularly ‘plastic’ very early in life and potentially could be modified by early intervention,” said investigator Cynthia Rogers, MD, assistant professor of child psychiatry, in a news release. “We usually can’t begin interventions until after symptoms develop, but what we’re trying to do is develop objective measures of brain development in preemies that can indicate whether a child is likely to have later problems so that we can then intervene with extra support and therapy early on to try to improve outcomes.”

All infants who participated in the study underwent MRI at term-equivalent age (36-42 weeks postmenstrual age), including diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and resting state-MRI (rs-MRI). DTI was analyzed using tract based spatial statistics (TBSS) to assess differences in fractional anisotropy (FA), while rs-MRI data was analyzed to determine correlation and covariance within and between seven canonical resting state networks (RSNs).

Imaging data indicate that very preterm infants have widespread reductions in white matter tracts compared to full-term infants, as well as reduced correlation and covariance within and between all RSNs. The researchers noted that the default mode and frontoparietal networks, which are involved with attention, social-communicative, and affective processing, were strongly affected. White matter tracts connecting hubs of these RSNs, including the cingulum and anterior limb internal capsule, showed some of the greatest between-group differences.

The results ultimately suggest that preterm birth disrupts functional and structural connectivity in regions linked to psychiatric disorders that often occur in preterm children. While the current results could mean changes to screening and therapy for preterm children, the researchers are continuing to follow the children through childhood in order to form a more complete picture of how preterm birth affects child development.

“We’re analyzing the data we’ve already gathered, but we want to bring the children back when they are 9 or 10 and continue to follow their development,” said Dr. Rogers. “We want to look at the evolution of brain development in full-term versus preterm babies, and we want to know how that may affect who is impaired and who is not.”


  1. Rogers C et al. Abstract 349.08. Impact of preterm birth on structural and functional connectivity in neonates. Presented at: Neuroscience 2015. Oct. 17-21; Chicago. 
  2. Washington University in St. Louis press release