Children who are born prematurely are more likely to have low mathematical achievement once they are in school, according to a new study. The study notes that this is thought to be associated with reduced working memory and number skills.
Researchers behind the study said they believe using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) right after birth could help identify the infants at risk for later academic problems.
The researchers suggest that identifying infants at risk for low mathematical achievement at school age would assist clinicians in directing families to targeted early intervention and surveillance for educational difficulties many years before an impairment is detected in school. Neonatal MRI is a useful method of predicting cognitive outcome in preterm children, according to the study.
To study this hypothesis, the researchers assessed up to 224 children who were born prematurely at age five and at age seven using MRI.
The children were from Melbourne, Australia, and are part of a Murdoch Children’s Research Institute study.
The researchers were looking for associations between diffusion MRI and local brain volumes on neonatal MRI with number skills and working memory in childhood.
Neonatal brain microstructure was positively associated with working memory scores in childhood, while increasing tissue volumes in the left insula and putamen regions of the neonatal Jacobian map were positively associated with higher number skills scores in childhood, according to the study’s findings.
This meant the researchers were able to identify brain microstructure and regions in the neonatal brain that are associated with childhood mathematical learning, according to co-author Henrik Ullman, Ph.D., of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
“Our findings demonstrate that brain microstructure and increased tissue volumes in regions located around the insula and putamen during the neonatal period are associated with better early mathematics in preterm children,” he said.
“This knowledge could assist in identifying infants at risk of mild academic impairments who would benefit from monitoring and referral to early intervention,” added another co-author, Megan Spencer-Smith, Ph.D., of Monash University in Melbourne.
“Such an approach could assist in reducing the number of preterm children performing below their peers in mathematics.”
The study also suggests that identifying these children early could reduce behavioral and emotional problems in childhood, as well as reducing mental health problems in adulthood.
The study was published in the neurology journal Brain.
Source: Brain: A Journal of Neurology