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Wednesday, 18 October, 2000, 00:01 GMT 01:01 UK
Premature babies 'have lower IQs'
Premature babies can have learning problems
Premature babies can have learning problems
Babies born prematurely have significantly smaller brains and may have learning problems later in life, a study suggests.

Research carried out by doctors in the US found "dramatic differences" between the sizes of the brains of children who were born prematurely and those born at full-term.

They found that children born prematurely were at risk of having lower IQs, and were more likely to need special education or have to repeat a year at school.

The risks of problems later in life increased the earlier the birth. A baby whose birth weight was less than two pounds or 1,000g was at particular risk.

The differences in brain volume on average were dramatic in all regions

Dr Bradley Peterson, Yale University

Doctors from Yale University compared the brain scans of 25 eight-year-olds who had been born prematurely with scans from 39 children who were born at full term.

They found that volume in crucial areas of the brain were lower in those born prematurely.

Dr Bradley Peterson, associate professor in child psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Centre, said the variations were dramatic.

"The differences in brain volume on average were dramatic in all regions, with reductions ranging from 11% to 35%.

"Not all children born prematurely showed these abnormalities, but those born at a younger gestational age were most affected.

"The magnitudes of the abnormalities in fact were directly proportional to how early the children were born, and they were strongly associated with IQ of the children at age eight years."

There has been a marked increase in recent years in the numbers of children regarded as having special educational needs.

Officially this is attributed to their needs being better recognised, but some special needs teachers think the improvement in survival rates of premature babies is also a factor.

Held back at school

Almost one in 100 babies who are born prematurely weigh less than two pounds.

Dr Laura Ment, professor of paediatrics and neurology at Yale, studied children born at this weight.

She said many were affected by their premature birth later in life.

"By age eight years, over 50% are in special education or receiving extensive resource room help.

"One fifth have already repeated a grade of school."

Adversely affected

Dr Peterson said further research was needed to examine why the brains of babies born early were adversely affected.

One in 10 of all babies born arrives in this world too early for comfort

Anne Luther, Action Research

"The study shows that when brains develop prematurely outside of the womb, they are vulnerable to developmental disturbances.

"We now need to find out what precisely is responsible for the problems with brain development in these infants."

He added: "From a clinical standpoint, the results of this study show that we need to look earlier in life for the presence of these same abnormalities in prematurely born children so that we can identify for early therapeutic intervention those children who are at the greatest risk for the cognitive and behavioural difficulties that are associated with these disturbances in brain development."

Anne Luther, director general of the charity Action Research, welcomed the study.

"In the UK, one in 10 of all babies born arrives in this world too early for comfort.

"Understanding what triggers off the process of labour and preventing it from happening prematurely will help to ensure that every baby gets off to the best possible start in life."

She said the charity was funding research into the causes of premature births.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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