BIRTH complications can cause lasting chemical changes in the brain that are linked to a higher risk of serious mental health problems later in life, according to researchers from King’s College London, Imperial College London, London, UK, and the Icahn School of Medicine, New York, USA. The study discovered there were lower levels of dopamine, a chemical associated with mental health issues, in the brains of adults who were born prematurely and received small brain injuries around the time of birth.
Complications at Birth
Bleeding in fluid-filled spaces called ventricles occurs during the first week of life in 15–20% of babies born before 32 weeks gestation, which can lead to long-term problems. It has been suggested previously that such complications can cause increased levels of dopamine. Changes in the levels of this chemical are linked to lack of motivation and enjoyment in normal life as well as alterations in concentration and attention levels; these could be early indicators of serious mental health problems such as depression.
Using a combination of PET and MRI scans, the researchers compared precise changes to the chemistry and structure of the brain during a range of psychological tests in three groups of people: adults born very preterm who sustained early brain damage, adults born very preterm who did not sustain brain damage, and a control cohort of term births.
Lower Levels of Dopamine Found
It was found that dopamine levels were actually lower in individuals who were both very preterm and had suffered brain injury. In contrast, those who were born prematurely with no injury had completely normal dopamine levels.
First author of the study, Dr Sean Froudist-Walsh, King’s College London, commented: “This could be important to how we think about treating people who suffered early brain damage and develop mental illness. I hope this will motivate scientists, doctors, and policymakers to pay more attention to problems around birth, and how they can affect the brain the long term.”
The researchers hope that their novel discovery will lead to the creation of more targeted and effective treatments of psychiatric problems in adults who suffered birth complications.
James Coker, Senior Editorial Assistant
For further information about the study, click here.