Scanning the brain of a premature baby shortly after birth to map the location and volume of lesions - small areas of injury in the brain's white matter - may help doctors better predict whether the baby will have disabilities later, reveal researchers.
Lack of oxygen to the brain is the most common form of brain injury in premature infants, resulting in damage to the white matter - which contains nerve fibers that maintain contact between various parts of the brain. Damage to white matter can interfere with communication in the brain and the signals it sends to other parts of the body.
"In general, babies who are born before 31 weeks gestation have a higher risk of thinking, language and movement problems throughout their lives, so being able to better predict which infants will face certain developmental problems is important so they get the best early interventions possible," said Steven P. Miller from The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, Canada.
The findings showed that a greater volume of small areas of injury, no matter where they were located in the brain, could predict movement problems at 18 months. A greater volume of these small areas of injury in the frontal lobe -- area of the brain that regulates problem solving, memory, language skills and voluntary movement skills -- could predict thinking problems.
On the other hand, premature infants with larger frontal lobe injuries had a 79 fold greater odds of developing thinking problems than infants without such injuries, as well as a 64 fold greater odds of problems with movement development.
Future studies should evaluate premature infants not just at 18 months, but at various points throughout childhood to determine the long-term consequences of early injuries in the brain, Miller added. The study was published in the journal Neurology.