Early brain structure may be a biomarker of later social development

The strength of brain connections at birth can predict the future emotional and social development of babies born prematurely, a study has found (“Neonatal white matter microstructure and emotional development during the preschool years in very preterm infants“) Posted in in Euro and led by Chiara Nosarti, PhD, Professor of Neurodevelopment and Mental Health, with colleagues from the Center for the Developing Brain, School of Bioengineering and Imaging Sciences, King’s College London and Evelina Children’s Hospital.

“Children born prematurely – about 10% of all births – are at greater risk of developing social and emotional problems. Yet there is no clear way to distinguish between children who will develop impairments and those who will not. Finding a biomarker, such as brain structure during infancy, would allow susceptible children to receive the support and interventions they need,” the researchers write.

“Children born very prematurely (

“All children underwent diffusion tensor imaging at an equivalent age at term and fractional anisotropy (FA) was quantified in the uncinate tract, inferior fronto-occipital tract, inferior longitudinal tract, and superior longitudinal tract The socio-emotional development of the children was assessed at preschool age (median = 4.63 years).Exploratory factor analysis conducted on the outcome variables revealed a 3-factor structure, with latent constructs summarized as follows: “moderation of emotions”, “social function” and “empathy”.

“Results of linear regression analyses, adjusted for large-scale IQ and clinical and sociodemographic variables, showed an association between low AF in the right uncinate tract and higher ’emotion moderation’ scores (ß= -0.280; pp=0.001). The results further showed an association between higher full-scale IQ and better social functioning (ß=-0.334, pp=0.006).

“These results suggest that early alterations in uncinate beam scattering characteristics may represent an underlying biological substrate for the link between very preterm birth and emotional dysregulation in childhood and beyond.”

The team used diffusion MRI to measure the brain structure of premature infants once they reached full-term age. When the infants were 4 to 7 years old, the research team measured their social and emotional skills using a series of behavioral questionnaires. The strength of the uncinate tract (a hook-shaped bundle of white matter connecting regions involved in emotional regulation) at birth was associated with emotion moderation skills at preschool age. Children with a weaker uncinate bundle were more likely to interpret situations in a negative light.

These results indicate that brain structure in early life can serve as a biomarker for later emotional and social development.

Joel C. Hicks