Abnormal motor behavior observed, follow-up of cognitive function outcomes warranted
New research shows that exposure to stressors in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is associated with alterations in the brain structure and function of very preterm infants. According to the study now available in Annals of Neurology, a journal published by Wiley-Blackwell on behalf of the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society, infants who experienced early exposure to stress displayed decreased brain size, functional connectivity, and abnormal motor behavior.
Infants born prior to the 37th week of pregnancy are considered preterm, which occurs in 9.6% of all births worldwide, according to the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO). A report by The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development confirms that preterm birth occurs in 12% of all pregnancies in the U.S. In addition to increased mortality risk, prior studies have shown that up to 10% of very preterm infants (22-32 weeks gestation) have cerebral palsy, nearly 40% display mild motor deficiency, and up to 60% experience cognitive impairments, social difficulties and emotional issues.
Babies who are premature are commonly admitted to the NICU for specialized medical attention, allowing time for immature organs to further develop. While interventional studies have demonstrated that exposure to stressors in the NICU may be harmful and reducing stress in premature infants improved outcomes, it is unknown how stressors in neonatal units impacts infant brain development. The present study, led by Drs. Terrie Inder and Gillian Smith, both Washington University researchers at St. Louis Children's Hospital in Missouri, is the first to report on the effects of stress among hospitalized preterm infants and its impact on brain development.