Up to half of babies born prematurely develop language and learning disabilities. According to a study in the October Pediatrics, the problems may stem from an unlikely source: the cerebellum.
This area near the back of the brain is better known for its role in motor coordination, but Catherine Limperopoulos and colleagues at Children's Hospital, Boston, suspected a role in cognitive development as well. Previously the team had shown that children born prematurely-with damage to the cerebellum but not to the "higher" cognitive regions in the cerebrum-showed language and social delays.
In the new study, magnetic resonance imaging of premature babies showed that injury to one side of the cerebrum slowed growth in the opposite side of the cerebellum. In turn, damage to the cerebellum showed up in the cerebrum. The authors note that perception and movement are synchronized via intricate neural pathways.
"Damage to the cerebellum, during or after premature birth, can disrupt the formation of these pathways, possibly leading to long-term behavioral and cognitive impairments," Limperopoulos says.