Study seeks to understand preterm birth and the impact on learning

March 02, 2020

Preterm babies are more likely to fall behind their counterparts when it comes to learning at school. But, identifying the preterm babies who will have this difficulty early is critical to ensuring these children thrive later in life.

Education researcher, professor Emma Duerden, has been awarded a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to identity these babies at risk.

“Early identification and early access to interventions can get kids back on track and have them lead healthy lives and be successful at school,” said Duerden.

Specifically, Duerden will look at two populations – children born preterm and children who are born full-term. She will compare the two groups of babies to see to see if there are any differences in brain development. Subsequently, she will also follow the babies until they turn one to see how preterm birth affects their motor and cognitive abilities.

As part of the study, doctors will use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to take images of a baby’s brain before it’s born to determine whether it will be born prematurely. An important indicator that determines a preterm birth is the amount of oxygen a baby receives in utero because oxygen is needed for brain development, said Duerden. Babies with growth restriction don’t receive enough oxygen in utero and are born early to start breathing and have their oxygen replenished.

The MRI allows doctors to see how much oxygen the baby is receiving. Depending on the baby’s oxygen level, the MRI will inform physicians whether the baby is at-risk of having not enough oxygen. If a situation reaches this point, doctors will make the decision to deliver the baby preterm, said Duerden.  

The study will take place in London, Ontario hospitals and women over 18 years of age are eligible to participate. The goal is to inform future interventions or therapies for at-risk babies.

Each year, one in 12 babies are born prematurely in Canada. Worldwide, babies with growth restriction who have reduced oxygen in utero accounts for 30 million births each year, said Duerden.

Premature birth is defined as a birth before 37 week’s gestation.

Duerden is one of 16 researchers across Canada – and the only one at Western – to receive the Early Career Investigator Award in Maternal, Reproductive, Child and Youth Health from CIHR.

“It’s a great honour to receive this award and for the committee to invest in this important research.”

Read more about professor Duerden. Follow her on Twitter (@developingbrai1) and on her research website.