The strength of brain connections at birth may predict the future emotional and social development of babies born prematurely, according to a study (“Neonatal white matter microstructure and emotional development during the pre-school years in children who were born very preterm”) published in eNeuro and led by Chiara Nosarti, PhD, professor of neurodevelopment and mental health, along with colleagues at the Centre for the Developing Brain, School of Bioengineering and Imaging Sciences, King’s College London and Evelina Children’s Hospital.

“Children born prematurely—roughly 10 percent of all births—are at greater risk of developing social and emotional problems. Yet there is no clear way to distinguish between which children will develop impairments and which won’t. Uncovering a biomarker, like brain structure during infancy, would allow susceptible children to receive the support and interventions they need,” write the investigators.

“Children born very preterm (<33 weeks of gestation) are at a higher risk of developing socio-emotional difficulties compared to those born at term. In this longitudinal study, we tested the hypothesis that diffusion characteristics of white matter tracts implicated in socio-emotional processing assessed in the neonatal period are associated with socio-emotional development in 151 very preterm children previously enrolled into the Evaluation of Preterm Imaging study (Eudra: CT2009-011602-42).

“All children underwent diffusion tensor imaging at term-equivalent age and fractional anisotropy (FA) was quantified in the uncinate fasciculus, inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus, inferior longitudinal fasciculus and superior longitudinal fasciculus. Children’s socio-emotional development was evaluated 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: ‘emotion moderation,’ ‘social function,’ and ‘empathy.’

“Results of linear regression analyses, adjusting for full-scale IQ and clinical and socio-demographic variables, showed an association between lower FA in the right uncinate fasciculus and higher ‘emotion moderation’ scores (ß=-0.280; p<0.001), which was mainly driven by negative affectivity scores (ß=-0.281; p=0.001). Results further showed an association between higher full-scale IQ and better social functioning (ß=-0.334, p<0.001). Girls had higher empathy scores than boys (ß=-0.341, p=0.006).

“These findings suggest that early alterations of diffusion characteristics of the uncinate fasciculus could represent a biological substrate underlying 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 reached age 4–7, the research team measured their social and emotional skills with a range of behavioral questionnaires. The strength of the uncinate fasciculus (a hook-shaped white matter tract connecting regions involved in emotional regulation) at birth was associated with emotion moderation skills in preschool. Children with a weaker uncinate fasciculus were more likely to interpret situations in a negative light.

These results indicate early-life brain structure may serve as a biomarker for later emotional and social development.