Home life not birth timing matters most for brain development

By / 29th of July, 2014

A NEWLY published study from The University of Adelaide suggests that children born preterm can be supported to achieve the same brain development as their full term brothers and sisters.

The results counter previous studies in the field suggesting that babies born preterm suffer a degree of cognitive delay that is never overridden.

“Everything else being equal, our study shows that the amount of social disadvantage preterm babies go home to is the most important factor in determining later cognitive abilities,” said lead researcher, Dr Julia Pitcher from the University of Adelaide's Robinson Research Institute.

“It’s an important outcome, as it suggests that we can support low income or disadvantaged families at the policy, planning and public health level to help preterm babies reach their full potential.”

The amount of social disadvantage preterm babies go home to is the most important factor in determining later cognitive abilities.

The results were achieved using a careful study design, which allowed the researchers to distinguish the effects of brain injury, time of delivery and socioeconomic status on brain function in babies born preterm. Research Officer Dr Luke Schneider assessed the cognitive abilities of 145 preterm and term-born young people now aged over 12. He also assessed data on social disadvantage at the time of birth and at the time of the cognitive assessment.

The results show that whether or not you were born preterm has a relatively minor impact.

"What we don’t yet know is how different factors in the home environment drive specific aspects of brain development,” said Dr Pitcher. “But early nutrition and enrichment through physical and intellectual stimulation are likely to have key roles."

The study was supported by an NHMRC project grant, and published in The Journal of Paediatrics.

Dr Pitcher is currently recruiting families to participate in a second study to explore how preterm birth and home environment affect childhood development.

Around 10% of children across the world are born preterm every year, and rates are rising.

Key contacts

Dr Julia Pitcher M.S. McLeod Research Fellow University of Adelaide - Robinson Research Institute
61 08 8313 1301 julia.pitcher@adelaide.edu.au www.adelaide.edu.au