Preterm Birth Can Cause Subtle Memory Problems, Study Finds

Rear view of a child studying a map

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.


  1. Preterm birth. (2014, October 30). Retrieved from
  2. Subtle but important memory function affected by preterm birth. (2014, December 18). Retrieved from

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  • gabrielle


    December 22nd, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    Do you really think that is has something to do with the gestational period being that much shorter?

  • Easton


    December 22nd, 2014 at 4:19 PM

    I wouldn’t think that this is the most serious health concern that premature babies will some day face… and besides, there are always memory related exercises that we can do to train our brains to be more efficient and to have better recollection and understanding.

  • Andrew


    December 22nd, 2014 at 8:07 PM

    If there is no effect on performance and just the chemistry is a little different then does it really make a difference? The premature children could have adapted to their biological shortcoming and if they are performing just as well then why cry out loud about this and cause heartache to so many parents out there!

  • verna


    December 25th, 2014 at 4:21 AM

    Thank you Andrew for voicing that- that is exactly what I was thinking!

  • Yolanda


    December 26th, 2014 at 8:29 AM

    Given the fact that there are so many babies who are born preterm each year, I am sure that this is a concern that will touch home with many of your readers. Even if everyone here is not affected, it is good to know that you are reaching out and trying to impact in such a positive way the most readers possible.

  • allie


    December 27th, 2014 at 3:52 PM

    But the key here is that this is all very subtle with nothing huge that impacts their lives, so not all that much really to worry about.

    I know moms who did every single thing right both before and during pregnancy and their baby still came ear;ly. I know that this is a possibility for a number of women so why scare them over something so small?

  • morgan


    April 16th, 2015 at 7:36 AM

    I’m almost 23 years old, and was born at 27 weeks, and had three brain bleeds. I’ve had a memory problem my whole life, and it seems to be worsening over time. This article really cleared up what could be going on. There’s still a lot of research I want to do, but this is a start. Thank you for writing this article!

  • Marwa


    June 5th, 2015 at 1:11 AM

    thank you, preterm birth affect all cognitive development so efforts should be done to overcome this problem

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