Autism: Extremely Premature Babies At Higher Risk

First Posted: Dec 22, 2015 02:38 AM EST

Babies who are extremely premature run a much higher risk of developing autism.

A new study conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institutet and Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden examined the differences in the brain's of children born very premature compared to those born full term.

"We were surprised by how many -- almost 30 per cent -- of the extremely preterm-born children had developed ASD symptoms," said Ulrika Ådén, researcher at the Department of Women's and Children's Health at Karolinska Institutet and neonatologist at the Neonatology clinic at Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden, in a news release. "Amongst children born after full term pregnancy, the corresponding figure is 1 per cent."

During the study, researchers examined over 100 babies who had been born extremely prematurely (i.e. before week 27, the beginning of the third trimester). They studied the babies' brains growth, with the person of their parents, by using magnetic resonance imaging during the neonate period. Then, they screened the children for autistic features when they reached the age of six. 

Findings revealed that autism was more common in the group of children who had developed ASD for there to have been complications during the neonate period, such as surgery, than it was amongst their prematurely born peers who had not developed ASD. Furthermore, long before the children showed signs of autism while in the neonatal period, differences could be seen between the extremely premature babies who later went on to develop ASD and those who did not--revealing diminished growth parts of the brain involved in social contact, empathy and language acquisition.

While autism is typically linked to genetic factors, the study results support previous findings suggesting that birth weight and complications may increase autism risk. 

The study is published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

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