Social factors affect premature babies’ brains

Premature babies from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to experience problems with early brain development than those from better off homes, research shows.

Premature baby pictured in an incubator

Scientists reached their findings by scanning the brains of 170 premature babies around the mother’s expected due date and then checking the data against socioeconomic status (SES).

Having divided the scans into 85 areas to examine changes in structure, they studied the results in relation to measures including parents’ education, employment and neighbourhood deprivation levels.

Family influence

The team found that family-level social inequalities – particularly parental education and employment – were linked with changes in more brain regions than neighbourhood deprivation.

The findings suggest that family-level social inequalities have a greater impact in determining brain development than other measures of SES.

Offering targeted support to parents who are facing socioeconomic challenges could boost the brain health of pre-term babies during their first weeks of life, researchers say.

Future impact

Regions of the brain impacted by SES are associated with a number of functions that could be involved in a child’s development and learning ability.

A follow up study will begin to explore how these changes to brain structure impact future behaviour and learning in the group as they age.

Premature babies

Previous studies have linked low SES to impaired brain development in children, but this is the first study to show it can impact brain development in premature babies.

Around 15 million babies are born pre-term – before 37 weeks – worldwide each year and it is still the biggest cause of death and disability among newborn babies.

Being born early can lead to brain injuries that leave children more likely to develop lifelong problems such as learning difficulties, problems with their sight and hearing, behavioural issues and cerebral palsy.

Brain scans

University of Edinburgh researchers scanned the brains of 261 babies from the Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort – a study that monitors the progress of premature babies from birth to adulthood.

The group included 170 babies who were born before 32 weeks of pregnancy and 91 who were born after 36 weeks. Brain scans for all babies were performed around the mother's expected due date.

For a long time, scientists have focused on discovering the medical issues and care practices that can affect premature babies' brain development. Now, we've found that social factors are very important, too. This presents exciting new opportunities because targeted support to families who need it the most could promote healthier brain development and improve outcomes of babies born too soon.

Professor James BoardmanMRC Centre for Reproductive Health, University of Edinburgh

Children’s charity

The work was funded by Theirworld and took place at the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh and the Simpson Centre for Reproductive Health at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

The Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory was set up in 2004 at the University of Edinburgh as a pioneering project of Theirworld – the global children's charity. It works to improve the lives of women and children who suffer complications in pregnancy and the newborn period.

This latest research marks another breakthrough in Theirworld’s mission to give all children the best start in life. We set up the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory in 2004 to find answers to why babies were being born too early and what we could do to support their development. I’m so proud of the extraordinary and sustained progress being made by Professor James Boardman and the Cohort team to find these answers and to ensure that babies have a greater chance not just to survive, but also to thrive.

Sarah BrownChair of Theirworld

Related links

Read the paper in JAMA Network Open

Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort

MRC Centre for Reproductive Health


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