Study Shows Prematurity and Brain Injuries at Birth Cause Lasting Chemical Changes

A new study published in eLife shows prematurity and brain injuries at birth may cause lasting chemical changes, most notably reduced levels of dopamine.  Low levels of dopamine can cause a range of mental health and other issues, which may be especially challenging during adulthood. This study highlights how infant brain damage can affect the individual long-term.

According to researchers from King’s Imperial College London and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, most individuals born prematurely continue to develop with normal levels of dopamine.  Individuals born prematurely, who also suffer brain injuries at birth, however, are more likely to experience lower levels of dopamine and the subsequent effects.

Prematurity and Brain Injuries

It is estimated that one in 10 babies are born prematurely, or before 37 weeks gestation.  Many are born with uncomplicated, non-traumatic birth experiences.  The earlier the baby is born, the higher the risk of complications and other problems, including birth injuries.  Medically, most babies are able to survive (viable) after 24 weeks gestation with proper treatment and care.  The fact is that the earlier the baby is born, the more vulnerable he or she is to illness, injury, and other complications.

Brain damage suffered during childbirth has numerous potential risks, including:

  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Lung Problems
  • Hearing Loss
  • Vision Problems
  • Behavioral Problems
  • Emotional Problems
  • Cognitive Disabilities

In terms of prematurity and brain injuries, researchers found that among babies born before 32 weeks, 15-20 percent experience bleeding in the ventricles of the brain, which can lead to complications and long-term problems.  The combination of prematurity and brain damage seems to increase the risk of cognitive and developmental problems, which is a significant finding.

To learn more about the effects of brain damage, a preemie brain bleed or other birth injuries, fill out our online form for a free case review.

Research Shows Lasting Chemical Changes

Researchers selected study participants out of a pool of adults born very prematurely, adults born prematurely who experienced brain injuries at birth, and adults who were born at term (control).  Using positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers found that people who experienced an early brain injury had lower levels of dopamine.  Dopamine is a critical chemical that affects learning, motivation, and enjoyment of life.

For many years, researchers have explored the link between early brain damage and mental illness later in life.  Understanding the connection between early brain injuries and lower dopamine levels could help science and medicine better understand how to help patients.  One researcher, Dr.  Chiara Nosarti, stated that,

the discovery of a potential mechanism linking early life risk factors to adult mental illness could one day lead to more targeted and effective treatments of psychiatric problems in people who experienced complications at birth“.

Not only could these developments lead to better understanding of identification and treatment, but some experts believe that the developments could help lead to prevention techniques.

Life after a Brain Injury

The prognosis and treatment options after a brain injury depends largely on the nature and severity of the injury.  Even mild brain injuries can result in long-term complications including physical or cognitive delays or disabilities.  There is a common misconception that because a baby’s brain is soft and in a constant state of growth and development that it will be quick to heal itself.  The truth is that a baby’s brain is fragile and vulnerable, which puts them at a greater risk of long-term complications.

Fortunately, there are numerous options for treating a brain injury, such as therapy, medication, and sometimes surgical interventions if necessary.  Therapy is one of the most common and beneficial types of treatment for brain injuries, especially those resulting in cognitive, behavioral, or emotional disorders.  Therapy interventions to help these disorders may include:

  • Physical Therapy: Focuses on physical independence. Physical therapy uses exercises to improve flexibility, coordination and balance, strength, and joint mobilization.
  • Occupational Therapy: Focuses on daily tasks of living. Occupational therapy includes exercises and training to help patients with tasks like grooming, dressing, feeding, hygiene, and emotional development.
  • Behavioral Therapy: Focuses on behavior, socialization, and emotional support. Behavioral therapy encompasses a variety of activities and exercises, including cognitive behavioral play, aversion therapy, and applied behavior therapy.

What researchers discovered about chemical changes stemming from brain injuries could go a long way toward helping families identify needs and get the appropriate treatment for their loved ones.  Early intervention and treatment is one of the best ways to reduce long-term effects and promote a favorable outcome.  Research like that discussed in this article offers promise for the future.

Have Questions about Birth Injuries?

If your child suffered an injury at birth, premature or otherwise, you may have questions about whether his or her care during childbirth was adequate.  Sometimes complications of pregnancy and childbirth are unavoidable.  Sometimes, however, complications and birth injuries may occur as a result of negligent healthcare.  In these cases, it is important that you explore your legal rights and determine if your child’s injuries could have been prevented.

To learn more about birth injuries or medical malpractice, contact Birth Injury Guide to speak with one of our skilled attorneys.  Fill out our online form or call 1-877-415-6603 for a free case review and get answers to your questions.

Meagan Cline

Written By Meagan Cline

Meagan Cline is a professional legal researcher and writer. She lends her expertise to the team at Birth Injury Guide to provide up-to-date and relevant content that clients can count on.