The research has merits, said Dr. Peter Rosenberger, a developmental neurologist who wrote an accompanying editorial.
"What the study helps confirm is that it is not the size of the brain that matters, but rather its complexity, which the authors have defined as number of folds or convolutions per unit of brain mass. What we don't know yet is what this greater complexity confers upon the brain," said Rosenberger, formerly director of the Learning Disorders Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, currently in private practice in Boston.
Because there was no group of full-term babies to compare the premature infants with, the study reveals little about brain development in babies born early, said Rosenberger.
In his editorial, Rosenberger said the authors' frequent references to "rate of growth" are somewhat misleading, and he noted that nearly 30 percent of the infants were only scanned one time, which doesn't allow for tracking a growth rate.
"The results are not a huge surprise," said Dr. Judy Bernbaum, medical director of the neonatal follow-up program at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She agreed with Rosenberger's editorial: "It helps to confirm that the better developed your brain is early on, the more likely you're going to do better from a developmental standpoint later on."
Bernbaum said parents of preemies with lower brain volume shouldn't worry, though. "Brain growth goes on for a couple of years. Even if at birth you have low brain volume, you still have a lot of potential you can maximize," she said.
Good nutrition in the first two years of life, a healthy and low-stress home environment and stimulation from parents and caretakers all contribute to the growth of the brain, Bernbaum said.
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