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Being born prematurely changes sleep brain activity and could affect future brain health

A new study has shed light on how being born extremely early can change an infant’s brain activity during sleep, with flow-on effects for brain development two years later.

The international study, led by QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute scientists, has been published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

Senior author and head of QIMR Berghofer’s Clinical Brain Networks team, Dr Luca Cocchi, said researchers analysed brain activity data collected from 94 infants from Helsinki in Finland.

The study group comprised 42 infants who had been born extremely premature at 27 weeks, and a control group of 52 infants who had been born at full term.

“Quality of sleep is a vital indicator of brain health, particularly in newborn infants, and our study looked at the brain process supporting distinct sleep patterns in preterm and full-term babies when measured about two weeks after the full term due date,” Dr Cocchi said.

“We found babies born at full term had marked reorganization of brain activity during different states of sleep, while it wasn’t as distinct in very premature babies.

“Our study also indicated that the differences in neural sleep activity at 42 weeks could predict a child’s ability to use visual information to solve problems at two years of age.

“There was some indication it might also have a small effect on social-emotional abilities – but that would require further research.

“Although there’s growing interest in understanding the importance of sleep – there’s been very little research on how sleep in the early stages of life affects brain development, and future brain health.

“This study provides new critical information to understand sleep in babies, and supports the growing evidence that infant sleep patterns affect brain development.

“Like other behaviours, good sleep relies upon the proper organisation of dynamic patterns of brain activity during different sleep states.

“The next step would be to look at older children and adults who had been born preterm to see if sleep and behavioural differences continue throughout a person’s life.”

Dr James Roberts, a co-author of the study and head of QIMR Berghofer’s Brain Modelling Group, said they used high-density electroencephalography (EEG) and other tools to map interactions between different brain regions when babies were in active sleep and quiet sleep.

“These two stages are key components of a newborn’s sleep-wake cycle, and gradually transform with age into cycles of rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep states such as deep sleep,” Dr Roberts said.

“The project was unique because it used advanced modelling methods to address a scientific problem that had potential implications for lifelong brain health.

“These tools have been previously used to describe complex systems such as the acoustics of musical instruments, but we’ve been able to adapt it to brain waves in sleeping babies.”

The international collaboration involved neuroscientists, physicists, neonatal clinical neurophysiologists, psychiatrists, and biomedical engineers from several hospital and research facilities across the world.

It was funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, Academy of Finland, Sigrid Jusélius Foundation, Finnish Pediatric Foundation, the Rebecca L. Cooper Foundation, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function, and the Australian National Health Medical Research Council.