Groundbreaking research on preterm babies is helping to save and improve their lives

Premature Babies And Brain Development 1
Preterm birth is a leading cause of neuro-developmental and learning problems (Theirworld)

Child nutrition (Early years), Early childhood development, Safe pregnancy and birth

Professor James Boardman tells how the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory in Edinburgh is working to reduce the number of children who grow up with difficulties after premature birth.

Around 8% of babies in Britain are born too soon. When that happens, a preterm infant’s brain is at risk of damage – which can result in long-term disability, reduced learning potential or even death.

But thanks to groundbreaking research by scientists and clinicians at the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory in the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh, premature babies have a better chance of living a healthy life.

As part of the Let’s Talk About Health series, professor of neonatal medicine James Boardman and his colleague Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson, a developmental psychologist, told about the work his team is focusing on.

The series allows scientists and clinicians to discuss new research at the University of Edinburgh and to share their latest ideas and discoveries with the public.

Professor Boardman, Scientific Director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory, praised the families who let them scan their babies for “their help and cooperation”. He added: “We wouldn’t have the information we now have without them. They give their time generously to help save and improve the lives of babies in the future.”

Jbrl Brain Scans 2017 Review

On the left are the brain connections from an MRI scan of a sleeping baby. The connections are colour-coded by direction of connection (green is front to back, blue is top to bottom and red from right to left). On the right is an “atlas” of the newborn brain, made by using computers to merge the MRI scans of many babies to produce an average. The colours highlight different parts of the brain. (Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory)

A staggering 15 million babies are born too early or too small every year around the world. The proportion of babies born prematurely ranges from 5% to 18% by country. 

Preterm birth is a leading cause of neuro-developmental and learning problems, which prevent children reaching their full potential.

With 8% of UK babies being born too early, the Laboratory is focusing on how to improve outcomes for these vulnerable newborns. 

Professor Boardman explained how his team is researching what effect being born “too early” has on the brain – and how they can improve the future outcome of preterm infants. The team is also looking at why some of these babies grow and develop well, while others experience difficulties. 

Speaking to Theirworld ahead of his Edinburgh presentation yesterday, Professor Boardman said: “The focus of the day is the ongoing scientific research we are doing to address three key questions that need to be answered in order to reduce the number of children who grow up with difficulties after premature birth – and reduce the effect of being born too early on brain development.

We are gathering information that will help develop new strategies and therapies designed to lead to better outcomes for children and families. Professor James Boardman

“How can we identify babies who are likely to have impairment so that we can target the right interventions at the right babies? 

“What are the biological factors that lead to atypical brain development?

“And what are the protective factors that enable some preterm babies to do very well?” 

The Laboratory has been using MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) to scan babies’ brains – then using  the pictures to show new ways of measuring brain growth and development.

“We are looking at how premature birth alters the brain pathways that are needed for emotional processing, social functioning, learning, movement and vision,” said Professor Boardman. “These changes may underlie the difficulties that some children experience later in life.” 

The Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory was set up 15 years ago by Theirworld President Sarah Brown and her husband Gordon – the former British Prime Minister – in memory of their first child Jennifer. She was born at 33 weeks and died 10 days later in 2002.

Professor James Boardman At Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory

Professor Boardman is the Scientific Director of the Jennifer Brown Research ​Laboratory

Part of its work is the Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort, where researchers are following a group of preterm babies and their mothers during the early childhood years.

“We are investigating factors like biology, socio-economic influences, genetics, psychological development and carrying out brain imaging in preterm infants,” Professor Boardman explained.

“We are looking at what leads to brain injury and what leads to resilience. We bring the babies back for studies at several points as they grow and develop over the early years.

“We are gathering information that will help develop new strategies and therapies designed to lead to better outcomes for children and families.

“For example, one of our research projects has shown that babies born to a mother who has had an infection in the membranes that surround the baby in the womb are at increased risk of brain damage.

“Yet, very often the mothers show no symptoms of this infection. We have discovered that if there is an infection in the membrane, this may affect brain development – and this can happen within a matter of days. 

“This focuses research attention on finding better ways of identifying babies and placentas at risk.

“We recruited a group of women, who let us examine their placentas (post-birth) and let us do MRI scans on their babies.”

Professor Boardman also touched on the groundbreaking research, revealed in November, that could help to identify children born preterm who may need extra learning support before they go to school. They discovered that the brain architecture known to support life-long learning is present before a baby is born

“We have shown that the brain architecture required for learning is established very early in life,” he said. 

“As well as doing our best to nurture the development of learning through the early years, this research focuses attention on trying to promote healthy brain growth in the womb and immediately after birth. 

“The discovery that the architecture in the brain known to support intelligence in adults is present when a baby is born and is altered if a baby is born too soon is a key finding.

Edinburgh Birth Cohort Baby Goes Into Scanner For Taking Brain Images At Jbrl

An Edinburgh Birth Cohort baby goes into the new scanner for taking brain images at the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory

“If MRI in the baby period does predict later abilities, then it may serve as a good way of detecting those children who need extra support in the early years.” 

Theirworld’s #5for5 campaign on early childhood development highlights the fact that 90% of brain development happens before a child is five – so investment in early years care and pre-primary education is absolutely vital.

Professor Boardman extended his gratitude to the families who have signed up to be part of the Laboratory’s research.

He said: “We only make these great strides because of the effort and commitment they also put in. We wouldn’t be armed with all the information we have without families who get involved and support our work by agreeing to scans and other research. We wouldn’t be as far forward as we are without them.

“Many families feel that even if we can’t solve issues for their children, the fact that the work we are doing now could help another baby and family in the future is what also drives them. They are helping to save lives.”

More news

See all news