March 23, 2006
Contact: Kaylyn Kendall Dines
Phone: (973) 972-3000
Study by UMDNJ Researchers Shows Effects of
Preterm Birth and Early Environmental Risks on Adolescents
-Findings have been published in March/April issue of the journal Child Development -
NEW BRUNSWICK—A researcher from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey found that the effects of medical complications and environmental risks on premature babies during the first three years of childhood continue through adolescence. The findings are published in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development.
The goal of the study, which was conducted at the Institute for the Study of Child Development of the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, was to determine whether adolescents with many medical risks at birth, and varying amounts of environmental risk use the same parts of the brain when performing tasks. Environmental risks include poverty and lack of social support for the family.
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to create images of 10 teenagers’ brains while the youth performed attention tasks such as pressing a button when seeing the letter X, but not pressing when other letters are presented. Based on other studies, researchers theorized that areas of the brain, like the parietal lobe - which involves motor function - would be particularly sensitive to the effects of medical complications; while areas of the brain, such as the temporal lobe - which relates to language - would be particularly sensitive to environmental risk.
Study outcomes indicate individual differences in medical and environmental risks were related to patterns of brain activation. Medical risks including low birth weight and breathing difficulty, were related to activation levels of the left parietal cortex, while environmental risk was related to temporal lobe activation. Study findings suggest that poor environments affect not only early behavior, but have an impact on adolescents’ attentional abilities, which can result in poor school performance and inappropriate social adjustment.
"According to our findings, different risk factors associated with preterm birth have different effects on brain function in adolescence," said Dr. Michael Lewis, principal investigator of the study and university distinguished professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "Although there may be no intervention to overcome the deficits associated with severe medical complications at birth, there are actions that can be taken to reduce environmental risk factors."
Helping a child reduce stress, providing social support for the family and improving the mother-child interaction can help increase brain function activation that could lead to improved school achievement.