Preterm birth rates are steadily rising. The CDC reports that 450,000 babies—one out of every nine births—were born prematurely in 2012. Prematurity is a major health risk factor, accounting for more than 35% of infant deaths in 2010. Doctors have long known that premature babies face a number of longer term health risks, and a new study found further challenges associated with prematurity. The study, which was published in the journal Child Development, argues that premature birth can undermine certain context-dependent memories.
How Premature Birth Affects Memory
For the purposes of the study, researchers defined prematurity as birth between 26 and 33 weeks gestation. They compared 18 children in Germany between the ages of 8 and 10 years who were born prematurely with 15 children of the same age who were born between 39 and 42 weeks gestation. Using MRIs, researchers calculated the volume of each child’s hippocampus, a brain region implicated in memory. Then the children completed a memory task that mixed familiar pictures with new ones. Researchers measured the children’s brain activity using an EEG while they completed this memory task.
Children born prematurely did not perform worse than children born full-term. However, EEG readings for those children showed reduced activity in an area of the brain associated with memory retrieval. In fact, the earlier a child was born, the greater the deficit in recollection-related brain activity.
Researchers theorize that premature children may suffer changes in memory but that they take steps to compensate for these changes. Thus brain activity in these children is different even when their performance is the same.
The study was a small one, so more research is needed to confirm its results. The researchers, though, believe that their study results offer important information about how children work around memory deficits. This could offer future insight into correcting memory-related problems in premature children.
- Preterm birth. (2014, October 30). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/pretermbirth.htm
- Subtle but important memory function affected by preterm birth. (2014, December 18). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141218081326.htm
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