Children with very low birth weight have increased risk of cognitive, emotional, behavioral problems throughout life

A new study found that newborns with a very low birth weight are more likely to have cognitive, emotional, behavioral problems all through their lives. The study was carried out by a group of scientists from Norway who looked at the brain activities of a total of 64 individuals who were born from 1986 to 1988 in Norway.

The researchers wanted to determine the difference between the brains of individuals with a normal birth weight when it came to cognitive control and those born with very low birth weight. They also wanted to assess the ability of the participants to think proactively or reactively about various tasks.

Half of the participants were born with very low birth weights, while the other half had normal birth weights. These participants previously took part in past MRI studies when they were one, five, 14, and 20 years old.

In conducting the study, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the participants’ brain activities in the different parts of their brain as they perform a task. For their task, they were shown a series of random letters through a computer screen. Whenever they saw a new letter show up on the screen, except for the letter “x,” they had to press the button as fast as possible. The letter “x” was only projected 10 percent of the time. The researchers identified two different brain processes that occur to accomplish this task – a proactive cognitive control function and a reactive function.

Proactive cognitive control involves mentally preparing or keeping a task in mind to execute the task. However, reactive cognitive control is triggered when something unexpected happens and the individual needs to adapt his behavior and react to the new information.

“You have to throw away your old plan and come up with a new plan,” Alexander Olsen, one of the researchers, explained.

The researchers observed that even though both groups of participants accomplished the tasks, they used different cognitive functions. They found that the group with extremely low birth weight had less proactive brain activation and were more reactive in comparison to those in the normal birth weight groups. In addition to the hyper-reactive brain activation signature, their white matter organization in the brain of the preterm group were poorer, which was linked to lower fluid intelligence and anxiety problems. Fluid intelligence pertains to the ability to think abstractly, recognize relationships, and solve new problems.

“Their brains reacted as if they were encountering something new each time,” Olsen said. “It suggests their brains are hypervigilant due to suboptimal organization of the central nervous system. One interpretation is that they are less prepared and more surprised each time, which might create more anxiety problems.”

Low birth weight and its causes

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 15 million babies are born preterm each year, which is more than one in 10 babies globally. Babies born prematurely are more likely born with very low birth weight, which also increases their risk of mental and physical health problems. A way to help low-weight-birth babies is to give them iron supplement which could improve their brain development and help prevent behavioral problems, according to a study.

Aside from being born preterm, there are other causes of low birth weight. Low birth weight may be caused by problems with the birth mother’s placenta, complications during pregnancy, intrauterine growth restriction, birth defects, poor maternal nutrition, abuse of drug or alcohol during pregnancy, or incomplete prenatal care.

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