Study aims to develop biomarkers of prematurity for predicting neurodevelopmental outcomes

Natasha Leporé, PhD, a principal investigator in the Department of Radiology and Imaging at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, has been awarded $1.7 million from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the NIH to study the impact of prematurity on brain development. Infants born premature can be at higher risk for cognitive problems and behavioral disorders compared to full-term babies. The goal of the study is to develop biomarkers for early detection of these potential impacts. The expected findings could improve physicians' ability to predict adverse outcomes and design early intervention programs to encourage healthy neurological development for newborns at risk.

"There is growing evidence of significant abnormalities in the structure of the brain beneath the cerebral cortex of premature infants, which may be associated with negative long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes," said Leporé. "Understanding these abnormalities could help explain the underlying causes and enable early detection in at-risk babies."

According to Leporé, there is still a lack of sensitive, reliable, and accessible algorithms capable of characterizing the influence of prematurity on the subcortical structures - the parts of the brain located beneath the cerebral cortex, which regulate functions including the perception of sensations, learning, reasoning and memory. In addition, few studies have looked directly at the long-term neurodevelopmental implications of these structural abnormalities.

"Using brain MRI, we plan to develop biomarkers of prematurity by statistically comparing the subcortical structures and neural pathways of these infants," explained Leporé, who is also an assistant professor of Research Radiology at Keck Medicine of USC.

The research team aims to build a new toolbox of measurements and algorithms to enable the analysis of neonatal brain structures, and to apply them to study the brain structure of infants born prematurely. These results will further be used to predict long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes of prematurity and enable the design of novel approaches to treatment.

"The ability to predict long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes in the first month following birth - and the possibility of intervening during this very early period - is likely to have a transformative effect on the outcome for these children," added Leporé.

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