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Stress May Affect Preemies' Brains, Study Shows

TUESDAY, Oct. 4 (HealthDay News) -- Very premature babies may develop brain changes as a result of stress experienced in the neonatal intensive care unit and should receive follow-up care to monitor brain function into childhood, a new study suggests.

Stressors, ranging from diaper changes to intubation, may contribute to smaller brains and abnormal motor behavior, according to the study, published Oct. 4 in Annals of Neurology.

"Our findings suggest that stress exposure reduces the brain size in early preterm infants and long-term consequences are unknown," study co-leader Dr. Terrie Inder, researcher at St. Louis Children's Hospital in Missouri, said in a journal news release. "However, prior research has found that brain volume at (term) birth is a predictor of neurodevelopmental outcomes later in childhood."

In conducting the study, researchers began observing 44 preterm infants born before 30 weeks' gestation within 24 hours of their birth. They measured the stress these infants were exposed to, ranging from routine nursing care to invasive medical procedures, and evaluated their brain structure and function using MRI scans.

The babies' average daily exposure to stressors was greatest within the first two weeks of life. Increased stress was linked to decreased frontal and parietal brain width, the study found. The investigators also found the babies' brains had altered microstructure and functional connectivity within the temporal lobes.

Infants exposed to greater amounts of stress in the first two weeks of life also had abnormal movement patterns and lower reflex scores, the findings showed.

The study authors noted more research is needed on stress exposure among premature infants to improve these results.

According to background information in the news release, about 12 percent of pregnancies in the United States result in preterm births -- before 37 weeks' gestation, and up to 60 percent of these children display social difficulties, cognitive problems and emotional issues.

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about premature babies.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: Annals of Neurology, news release, Oct. 4, 2011

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