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Doctors study brains of premature babies for ADHD link

July 4, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
In the first study of its kind, scientists have pinpointed differences in the developing brain that may increase the risk of cognitive disabilities, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. Doctors believe being able to intervene this early may help kids avoid the consequences of ADHD.

At Children's Hospital Los Angeles, researchers looked deep into the brains of premature babies to find out what differences can be seen at birth.

"Preemie brains are at high risk for a whole host of problems," said Dr. Douglas Vanderbilt with Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Of particular interest: the frontal lobe. This area helps humans problem solve, memorize and remain attentive.

"The very specific region on the putamen was changed and it's actually the same region that's changed in children with ADHD," said Dr. Natasha Lepore with Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

The risk of ADHD in the general population is about six to seven percent. In preemies, the risk could be as high as 30 percent.

"ADHD is four to six times more common with an extremely low birth weight group," said Vanderbilt.

Using MRI technology, scientists found the putamen regions in preemies were less likely to be smooth and round.

"If we can show that's predictive of developmental problems, it could allow us to intervene early," said Vanderbilt.

Many kids with ADHD aren't diagnosed until school age. Experts believe early intervention may teach these children how to maintain focus and suppress impulsive behaviors.

Doing MRI studies on all premature infants is expensive, but researchers believe it'll save money in the long run.

"This is a significant problem with significant costs. And if we can really say that these kids are at risk and then intervene with potential behavioral therapies and prevent them from needing medication later, you can save lots and lots of money," said Vanderbilt.

The next step, researchers say, is to find out how well these brain anomalies predict ADHD. Until then, Vanderbilt says if you suspect your child has ADHD, the earlier you get a diagnosis the better.

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