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Premature birth is a worldwide problem, and the most significant cause of loss of disability-adjusted life years in children. Impairment and disability among survivors are common: cerebral palsy is diagnosed in around 10% of infants born before 33 weeks of gestation, although the rates approximately double in the smallest and most vulnerable infants, and other motor disturbances are being detected in 25%–40%. Cognitive, socialisation and behavioural problems are apparent in around half of preterm infants, and there is increased incidence of neuropsychiatric disorders, which develop as the children grow older. Adults born preterm are approximately seven times more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disease.1 2
The neuropathological basis for these long-term and debilitating disorders is often unclear. Brain imaging by ultrasound or MRI shows that only a relatively small proportion of infants have significant destructive brain lesions, and these major lesions are not detected commonly enough to account for the prevalence of long-term impairments. However, abnormalities of brain growth and maturation are common, and it is now apparent that, in addition to recognisable cerebral damage, adverse neurological, cognitive and psychiatric outcomes are consistently associated with abnormal cerebral maturation and development.
Currently, most clinical decision-making remains focused around a number of well-described cerebral lesions usually detected in routine practice using cranial ultrasound. Periventricular haemorrhage is common. Severe haemorrhages are associated with long-term adverse outcomes, and in infants born before 33 weeks of gestation, haemorrhagic parenchymal infarction predicts motor deficits …
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.