The researchers conducted brain scans on 43 infants in the United Kingdom who were born at less than 32 weeks' gestation and admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The scans focused on the brain's white matter, which is especially fragile in newborns and at risk for injury. They also conducted tests that measured certain brain chemical levels.
When 40 of the infants were evaluated a year later, 15 had signs of motor problems, according to the study published online Dec. 17 in the journal Radiology. Motor skills are typically described as the precise movement of muscles or groups of muscles to perform a certain act.
The researchers determined that ratios of particular brain chemicals at birth can help predict motor-skill problems. Specifically, increased choline/creatine and decreased N-acetylaspartate/choline were 70 percent accurate in predicting which babies would have motor development delays one year later.
Being able to predict the risk of neurodevelopmental problems in premature babies would help identify those who should receive intensive treatment, and also prove useful in assessing the effectiveness of those therapies, according to study author Giles Kendall of University College London.
Physical therapy is available but very expensive, and the vast majority of premature babies don't need it, he said. "Our hope is to find a robust biomarker that we can use as an outcome measure so that we don't have to wait five or six years to see if an intervention has worked," he said in a journal news release.
Severe disability associated with premature birth has decreased over the past two decades as a result of improved care in NICUs. But many premature infants still have subtle problems that can be difficult to detect, Kendall noted.
"There's a general shift away from simply ensuring the survival of these infants to how to give them the best quality of life. Our research is part of an effort to improve the outcomes for prematurely born infants and to identify earlier which babies are at greater risk," he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more about premature babies.