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Understanding the connection between premature birth and fetal brain development

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Advancements in medicine have greatly increased the survival rate of premature babies, but researchers have yet to determine how to prevent some infants born too early from developing neurological conditions as they age, for example autism and cerebral palsy. An article published yesterday in Newsweek, examines scientists' efforts to improve neurological outcomes for preemies and it includes research by Lucile Packard Children's Hospital neonatologist Anna Penn, MD, PhD, and her colleagues at Stanford.

Jeneen Interlandi reports:

By manufacturing a vast array of chemicals and deploying them to the fetus, where they cross the blood-brain barrier, the placenta sets in motion a cascade of chemical events whose effects won't be fully realized for years to come.

Penn and her colleagues reason that cutting the conversation short leaves the developing brain in the lurch. "Without the placental signposts, development is hobbled," she says. "If we can figure out exactly what directions have been lost, we can chart an identical map and help keep development on course."

Using a small army of genetically engineered mice, Penn's team is turning off one hormone gene at a time in the hopes of determining which of them has the biggest impact on neural development. On top of that, they are collecting blood and spinal fluid from human babies--both premature and full term--so that they can compare hormone profiles between groups.

To learn more about Penn's research and how the placenta could provide clues into fetal brain development, read the full story.

Photo by bradleyolin

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