New research at the University of Adelaide has demonstrated that teenagers born prematurely may suffer brain development problems that directly affect their memory and learning abilities.
The research, conducted by Dr Julia Pitcher and Dr Michael Ridding from the University of Adelaide's Robinson Institute, shows reduced 'plasticity' in the brains of teenagers who were born preterm (at or before 37 weeks gestation).
The results of the research are published today in the Journal of Neuroscience.
"Plasticity in the brain is vital for learning and memory throughout life," Dr Pitcher says. "It enables the brain to reorganize itself, responding to changes in environment, behavior and stimuli by modifying the number and strength of connections between neurons and different brain areas. Plasticity is also important for recovery from brain damage.
"We know from past research that preterm-born children often experience motor, cognitive and learning difficulties. The growth of the brain is rapid between 20 and 37 weeks gestation, and being born even mildly preterm appears to subtly but significantly alter brain microstructure, neural connectivity and neurochemistry.
"However, the mechanisms that link this altered brain physiology with behavioral outcomes - such as memory and learning problems - have remained unknown," Dr Pitcher says.