November 17, 2017

Groundbreaking research on premature babies' brains could help to spot children who need extra learning support

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.

Photo credit: Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory

Elaine Hunter

Early childhood development writer

Scientists at the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory in Edinburgh have made a discovery that could improve the future for many young children.

Pioneering research into premature babies could help to identify children who may need extra learning support before they go to school.

The “groundbreaking” discovery by scientists in Edinburgh strengthens calls for more investment in the development of children from birth to age five.

The Theirworld-funded team at the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory (JBRL) has discovered that the brain architecture known to support lifelong learning is present before a baby is born. 

They are now tracking a group of babies to see how they develop over the next few years. As part of this study, they will examine how the learning abilities of the children develop as they grow up and relate this back to MRI scans of the premature babies’ brains.

“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,” said Professor James Boardman, scientific director of JBRL and consultant in neonatal medicine at Edinburgh University. 

The work of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory could help to improve the chances of preterm babies developing normally

Photo credit: Theirworld

"At present, difficulties often only arise when the children get to school, which misses a critical period in the early years when interventions could help. This is a very exciting time.”

Today is World Prematurity Day, an annual opportunity to raise awareness of premature birth and the impact it can have on families. Across the world, an estimated 15 million babies are born prematurely - before 37 weeks of pregnancy - and the number is rising, according to the World Health Organization.

Theirworld’s #5for5 campaign has been driving home the message that 90% of brain development happens before a child is five. That period sets us up for success in later life - so investment in early years care and pre-primary education is absolutely vital.

The JBRL was set up by Theirworld president Sarah Brown and husband Gordon when their daughter Jennifer was born prematurely and died after just 10 days.

Sarah said: “The study gives us the chance to fully understand what’s going on and to then take these findings and improve the chances of a preterm baby to develop normally. Seeing new evidence emerge is exciting and drives us to find out more.”

Professor Boardman said: “This is groundbreaking research. We have shown that the brain architecture required for learning is established very early in life. 

“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.”

Theirworld funded the recruitment of the Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort, which is studying over 25 years a group of babies born preterm and a group born at full term.

Professor Boardman explained: “We obtained MRI scans from preterm babies just at the time they were due to go home and then gathered scans from some healthy full-term time babies whose mums were happy to be part of the research.

We don’t always know why two babies born at the same age can develop differently. We want to fully understand what the resilience factors are in the baby developing well.

Professor James Boardman

“We used a type of MRI scanning which allows you to get pictures of the brain’s connections (using a state-of-the-art £1.8 million research MRI scanning facility) and then we used sophisticated computer programmes to compare those connections between the two groups.”

So why do some premature babies fare better than others?

“There is no doubt there is a genetic component, “ explained Professor Boardman. “We have done some work on that - but how strong the genetic component is, is not yet fully understood. 

“We don’t always know why two babies born at the same age can develop differently. For instance, why one will develop big problems and the other is fine. We want to fully understand what the resilience factors are in the baby developing well.”

Professor Boardman believes a baby’s chance of development is a complex mix of genetics, the way an individual’s genetic code is expressed in the body, medical issues of mother and baby, and socio-economic factors. 

He added: “What we’re also looking at with the birth cohort is parenting and the family situation, so that we can discover what brings out the best in newborns and then use this information to again enrich the environment for pre-term babies. 

“We want to understand what really counts as the children grow into adulthood.”

Professor Boardman believes a baby’s chance of development is a complex mix of genetics

Photo credit: Theirworld

All aboard the epigenetics express...

One of the focuses of the JBRL team’s work is the field of epigenetics - additional information layered on top of the strings of molecules that make up our DNA.

“The word strikes terror into the heart of lay people and many professionals. It sounds too difficult to understand,” said Dr Ian Laing from the JBRL’s management board.

“Imagine a train with many carriages travelling recurrently from Edinburgh to London. It is covered in pristine metal.  But over the years the metal gets attacked by weather conditions and the metal rusts.  

“The train carriages are still lined up in the same order. The train still runs but functions less well than before.  Attack from the external environment has caused the train to be less functional.

“DNA is a very long strand of nucleotides which code for our genetic makeup. The nucleotides are the carriages and they are lined up in a particular order.  

“Yes, they are the stuff of our genes and carry the information which determines our hair colour and height and many other things. But they can be altered by the environment, both in the womb and after delivery.  

“Little molecules (sometimes of carbon and hydrogen) can attach themselves to the DNA and alter the activity of the genes (gene expression). This alteration may cause a deterioration in the functioning of the body - it can be permanent and can be inherited.

“Professor Boardman and his team at the JBRL have been studying the way the south-bound train is being attacked and looking at ways of preventing this.”

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