Principal investigator Cynthia Rogers, assistant professor of child psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said, "White matter tracts in our brain are made of axons that connect brain regions to form networks. We found significant differences in the white matter tracts and abnormalities in brain circuits in the infants born early, compared with those of infants born at full term."
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and diffusion tensor brain imaging to compare 58 babies born at full term with 76 infants born at least 10 weeks early. Each full-term baby was underwent a scan on his or her second or third day of life, while each premature baby received a brain scan within a few days of his or her due date.
The research team found that some key brain networks - those involved in attention, communication and emotion - were weaker in premature babies, offering an explanation for why children born prematurely may have an elevated risk of psychiatric disorders. The team also found differences in preemies' resting-state brain networks, particularly in a pair of networks previously implicated in learning and developmental problems.
Rogers said, "These brain circuit abnormalities likely contribute to problems that materialize as the children get older. The brain is particularly 'plastic' very early in life and potentially could be modified by early intervention."
The findings will be presented at Neuroscience 2015, the annual scientific meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago.