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Premature Birth & Small Brain Injury? They Are More Likely to Link with Adult Mental Illness

A new study conducted by King’s College London shows, “Babies born prematurely and who also suffer small brain injuries at the time of brain, are more likely to have lower level of dopamine.”

What is Dopamine?

In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by neurons (nerve cells) to send signals to other nerve cells. Dopamine is associated with attention, concentration and finding enjoyment in life. Low levels of this chemical may lead to serious mental health conditions such as depression.

Fact is, 1 in 10 babies are born prematurely. And most experience no major complications at the time of birth. However 15-20% of babies born prematurely experience bleeding in brain’s ventricles (fluid-filled spaces). If a significant bleeding is noticed, it can cause problems for a long term.

The exact link between birth complications and mental health issues is still not much clear.

To investigate further, researchers from King’s College (London) and Icahn School of Medicine (New York) used a combination of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of the brain along with various tests. They wanted to determine the precise changes following early brain damage. They compared three groups of people:
(1) adults who were born premature and sustained brain damage
(2) adults who were born premature and did not sustain brain damage and
(3) adults who were not born premature.

Dr. Sean Froudist-Walsh, the study’s first author commented:

“We found that dopamine, a chemical that’s important for learning and enjoyment, is affected in people who had early brain injury, but not in the way a lot of people would have thought — dopamine levels were actually lower in these individuals.”

This result could be an important message to how we think about treating people who suffered early brain damage and develop mental illness at later stages. Difficulties at birth may count as one of the most stressful life experiences.

Ending Note

When we are enough capable to understand the exact mechanism linking early life risk factors and adult mental illness, it could lead to more targeted treatment of psychiatric problems of people who had birth complications.

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Dr. Vishal Jogi

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