Science hasn’t isolated the causes of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Genetics, pesticides, pollution, diet, and smoking or drinking during pregnancy have all been implicated. A new study at the Washington University Neonatal Development Research Lab indicates that babies born prematurely may be at particular risk.
Doctors studying babies born full-term and babies born 10 weeks or more premature have discovered some early signals in preemies who could have developmental or psychological disorders. Usually these disorders have no symptoms until the child is 3 to 5 years old.
The researchers studied functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of 58 babies born full-term and 76 infants born 10 weeks or more premature. Each full-term baby was scanned within a couple days of birth while the premature infants were scanned within a few days of what would have been their full-term due date.
Finding Clues in the Brain
Researchers found that babies born early had a substantial difference in brain matter and circuitry than the babies born full-term.
The particular parts of the brain affected in the preterm babies control emotion and communication. They’ve also been linked to ADHD and autism.
The brain forms new connections throughout life in response to new situations and changes in the environment — a process often referred to as neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. The potential for new connections is highest when we are young.
The principal author of the study, Dr. Cynthia Rogers, says that these findings could lead to identifying some children at risk for ADHD and autism before symptoms arise. Therapies to encourage more and stronger brain connections in the social and communication centers in these toddlers could prevent severe deficits later in life.
The doctors will be following the infants in the study to see how their brains develop and whether the preterm babies develop ADHD or autism spectrum symptoms.
Intervening Early Helps
Charlotte Edwards, a South Carolina mother, knew her son was at greater risk for ADHD when he was born 15 weeks early and spent 118 days in the neonatal intensive care unit.
The boy was diagnosed with ADHD in 2012 at age 5, although Edwards had suspected he had the condition a year earlier.
Deborah Trum, a New Jersey mother, saw symptoms of ADHD in her 7-week preterm daughter by age 4 as well. The girl received an ADHD diagnosis at that time after being removed from four different daycare centers for behavior problems.
“The symptoms most troublesome to her involved human interaction,” Trum told Healthline. “Kids would try to touch her or get in her bubble and she had a fight-or-flight response.”
Both mothers sought early intervention for their kids.
“I feel my son is doing so well now due to the [early intervention] services he received,” Edwards told Healthline.
Her son received occupational, speech, and physical therapy for the first three years of his life. He also participated in BabyNet, South Carolina’s early intervention agency, from hospital discharge to 3 years old. The boy was followed by the hospital’s neonatal high risk and developmental clinic until age 3 as well.
“(These) services were extremely helpful with the development of his fine- and gross-motor skills as well as oral motor and feeding issues,” said Edwards.
Trum said her daughter wasn’t as fortunate.
“I tried to get [early intervention],” said Trum. “Unfortunately, in New Jersey, the child had to be deficient in a minimum of two areas to qualify for early intervention [at that time], and my daughter only had one, her speech delay.”
Trum ended up quitting her job to learn how to help her daughter.
These mothers agree that earlier intervention and more intervention could make a big difference in the lives of children born prematurely. This study is a step in that promising direction.
A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD and autism, Penny Williams is the author of two award-winning books on ADHD, “Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD” and “What to Expect When You're Not Expecting ADHD.” Her third book, “The Insider’s Guide to ADHD: ADHD Adults Reveal the Secret to Parenting Kids with ADHD” will be available in December 2015.