Low Birthweight May Take A Toll On Cognitive Abilities Later In Life

At just 2 pounds, 15 ounces, Deb Discenza's daughter was what doctors and researchers consider a very low-birthweight baby.

Discenza, who is co-founder of PreemieWorld and author of "The Preemie Parent's Survival Guide to the NICU," said she received ample information and that doctors gave her daughter plenty of care. But one area that they virtually ignored was the potential impact her daughter's small size at birth might have on her cognitive abilities down the road.

"No one was really discussing those issues after my daughter was born," Discenza told HuffPost, explaining that her daughter has since been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. "And no one was discussing them after we brought her home from the hospital."

But eight years later, that may finally change.

A new, Finland-based study published in the journal Neurology on Monday suggests that very low-birthweight babies -- those under 3.3 pounds -- scored lower than normal birthweight babies when researchers considered their general intelligence, attention, visual memory and executive functioning as adults. The latest report joins prior studies that have suggested that severely preterm babies do worse on neurocognitive tests.

To look at the potential impact of birthweight on the brain, the authors of the new study compared approximately 100 adults with very low birthweight and approximately 100 who had not had very low birthweight.

"The most significant finding is that the differences we found persist into young adulthood and characterize a wide range of cognitive abilities," said Katri Raikkonen of the Institute of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Helsinki and one of the study's authors.

The researchers paid particular attention to executive function, which the National Center for Learning Disabilities defines as a set of mental processes used to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing and paying attention to details.

In doing so, they found that the low-birthweight adults scored worse on tests looking at things like psychomotor speed, attention and distractibility.

According to Raikkonen, one potential explanation is the potential for brain injuries among preterm babies, which can occur from inadequate oxygen. She told HuffPost that the brain's plasticity -- its capacity to change in the wake of adverse events -- may not fully compensate for those early injuries.

But not all of the very low-birthweight babies looked at in the study were born premature, indicating the findings should not be extrapolated broadly to all babies born preterm, cautioned Dr. Michael Katz, senior vice president of research and grants at the March of Dimes.

"In as much as there were a small number of those [very low birth weight] babies who were born preterm, there appears to be some connection," Katz said. "But it leaves the question: Is the influence on cognitive abilities because of weight or because of low gestational age?"

What Katz said is clear is the fact that severely premature infants may have significant intellectual impairment, but that is highly individualized. The brain, he explained, continues developing long after birth. Some very low-birthweight and preterm babies may grow up with neurocognitive impairments or issues, others may not.

And that, according to Discenza, is where parents of preterm and very low-birthweight babies, like herself, could use help.

"These parents are so overwhelmed and we need to work a lot harder with them," she said, allowing that she has seen some uptick in awareness of these issues since her daughter was born.

"Every one of these low-birthweight babies should be qualifying for early intervention automatically," Discenza argued. "The reality is, these babies are at risk."