Stress causes brain changes in premature babies

Research commissioned by the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society has found that the structure and function of very premature babies’ brains are changed as a result of stress experienced in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Babies born before the 37th week of pregnancy are considered to be premature. The World Health Organisation reports that 9.6 percent of worldwide births are premature. Not only do premature babies have an increased mortality rate, numerous studies have reported that children born before the full gestation have motor deficiency to some degree and more than half of premature babies will suffer from social and emotional difficulties and demonstrate cognitive impairments.

The study conducted at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri, USA, examined the influence of stress on the brain development of 44 premature babies born between November 2008 and December 2009. The babies observed were born less than 30 weeks into the pregnancy and were recruited within 24 hours of birth. The Neonatal Infant Stressor Scale was used that contains 36 interventions that are known to contribute stress towards a premature baby were examined. Additionally, brain imaging and evaluations of neurobehavioral were used to examine brain structure and function.

The study concluded that the premature babies were subjected to highest levels of stress within the first two weeks of birth and that these stressors lead to decreased brain size, abnormal motor behaviour and less functional connectivity. The researchers have said that more investigation into the long term effect of stress on premature babies needs to be conducted and measures to reduce exposure to stressors in the first few days and weeks of life need to be reduced.

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