Premature Birth Linked to Mental Health Issues in Adolescence

Several mental health issues, including obsessive compulsive behaviors, depression, tic disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity, have been linked to abnormal white and gray matter in adolescents as was a result of their premature birth. According to a new study led by Dr. Agnes Whitaker of the Columbia University Medical Center / New York State Psychiatric Institute, the mental health issues were caused by subcortical-cortical circuit dysfunction. The study is significant because health professionals who address psychiatric issues and perinatal brain injuries, such as psychiatrists, pediatricians and neurologists, could possible provide earlier diagnoses and interventions for the children and adolescents affected by these circumstances.

The researchers examined over 400 adolescents, none of whom had disabilities. Each test subject had been born prematurely and their ultrasound from birth had revealed abnormalities in their brain structure. The researchers conducted cognitive tests on the participants, and also interviewed the adolescents and their parents and asked them a series of questions to determine the presence of any mental health issues. The discovered that there was a strong link between mental health issues appearing in adolescence and perinatal brain injuries. The researchers allowed for pre-existing health concerns and other factors that could influence the presence of mental health issues and found no other social or medical factors for their findings.

Experts have long believed that trauma to the brain at an early age, or even pre-mature brain development, can play a part in the development of various mental health and psychiatric issues. But this study is the first evidentially-based study of its kind to confirm the relation between perinatal brain injuries and psychiatric problems in later life. Whitaker, who is a research psychiatrist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at New York State Psychiatric Institute, says, “The study is a beautiful example of interdisciplinary work. The team included researchers from neonatology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and epidemiology. It couldn’t have been done otherwise.”

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • larry wilson

    larry wilson

    July 18th, 2011 at 1:33 PM

    nobody has control over premature birth.but it can result in problems.just shows how little control we have over certain things.

  • Charles


    July 18th, 2011 at 5:57 PM

    I wonder if the researchers can study the brains of children who are not pre-term and see the same effects. Can they perform ultrasounds on these children and predict whether issues are going to occur. If they could make this prediction it might help parents moving forward as they could guide the children through therapy and targeted education. I think the benefits could be endless and really help parents guide the difficulties that will occur when raising a child with the issues mentioned.

  • Luke Stephenson

    Luke Stephenson

    July 18th, 2011 at 7:40 PM

    If they are born prematurely, those babies always be at risk even as they get older because of their underdeveloped bodies and brains at birth. Brain related problems are going to be the most debilitating complication of them all. It’s good that they have a way to spot potential future issues before they arise.

    We should be glad we have the technology and know-how nowadays that allows so many premature babies to survive an early birth. It wasn’t that many decades ago that wasn’t the case.

  • Dario Ricci

    Dario Ricci

    July 18th, 2011 at 8:22 PM

    I think whoever is making these connections needs to catch up to the 21st century. We’ve known that premature birth causes mental retardation for decades. We’ve known it for so long we actually called it retardation before that word was considered to not be politically correct and fell out of use. This isn’t new.

  • Sherry Taylor

    Sherry Taylor

    July 19th, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    @Dario: Well those connections have only been theoretical up till now, and this is the first study to actually confirm it. That’s what different. Even though we can talk about it until the cows come home, no theory truly holds any water until it’s proven.

  • NICK


    July 19th, 2011 at 12:45 PM

    Early detection can benefit a lot and can go on to save this sure is a step in the right direction.being born prematurely should not come in their way of leading normal healthy lives and this can hopefully help such kids.

  • L. Flores

    L. Flores

    July 19th, 2011 at 2:04 PM

    The good thing is that we have at least we’ve confirmed yet another danger related to giving birth before the due date. When we know the potential is there for that kind of long term damage in premature babies via scanning for these abnormal cells, we can monitor them closely for any signs or symptoms.

    Being premature doesn’t automatically mean your child won’t go on to live a full and contented life. Being informed on what to look out for is a giant plus.

  • Andrea Byrd

    Andrea Byrd

    July 19th, 2011 at 5:03 PM

    It’s always unfortunate when a child is born premature. Even with modern medicine being able to save most of them, it looks like they will continue to have challenges all through life.

    My friend’s granddaughter who was a month early is developmentally about nine months behind where she should be for her age according to child development books. She’s tiny too, like a china doll. Beautiful as well. :) She is coming along though and doing much better than we’d ever dared to hope for when she was born.

  • Ally


    August 20th, 2012 at 3:09 AM

    My premature-now teen just found this website after me constantly telling her when she flips moods that it appears there is something wrong with her mentally that I can’t put a finger on. It was always said in frustration and I never thought there could be anything other than a spoiltchild trait. She caught up with her developments and is doing well in certain environments but when it does not fit, she flips and I am not patient because I have done my best on my own with no other parent help or family help and I am worn out with the little things. I know that the proding when they are young with lots of needles is painful and can result in great anger and the constant monitoring of them during the school years makes them feel inadequate. I hope doctors are able to remember that these are still children and find ways to minimise labellism to the children which leaves us parents picking the pieces.

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on