Brains of premature babies respond differently to touch

The experience of touch is the beginnings of the development of human communication.
By Brooks Hays   |   March 16, 2017 at 2:06 PM
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March 16 (UPI) -- The brains of premature babies respond differently to touch than those born at full term. The difference could affect the way their brains continue to grow and develop.

Babies experience the world through touch. While premature babies are separated from mom and often subjected to surgeries and other medical procedures, full-term babies continue to experience a series of sensations inside the safety of their mother's womb.

Scientists believe the discrepancy explains why neural reactions triggered by touch are different for premature babies when they finally get home from the hospital.

The disparity problems can be improved by ensuring preterm babies receive as much gentle skin-to-skin contact as possible while in the hospital.

"Making sure that preterm babies receive positive, supportive touch such as skin-to-skin care by parents is essential to help their brains respond to gentle touch in ways similar to those of babies who experienced an entire pregnancy inside their mother's womb," Nathalie Maitre, a researcher and pediatric expert at the Nationwide Children's Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said in a news release. "When parents cannot do this, hospitals may want to consider occupational and physical therapists to provide a carefully planned touch experience, sometimes missing from a hospital setting."

Maitre and her colleagues measured the brain response to touch of 125 preterm and full-term babies babies right before they were discharged from the hospital. A soft head cap of 128 electrodes measured the neural response when each baby experienced a soft puff of air on the skin.

Air puffs were less likely to elicit a brain response in preterm babies than full-term babies, and preterm babies who had experienced more pain and significant medical procedures were the least likely to register a brain response.

Increased gentle skin-to-skin contact with parents and hospital staff helped diminish the effects on brain response for preterm babies, the researchers said.

Researchers published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

"We certainly hoped to see that more positive touch experiences in the hospital would help babies have a more typical perception of touch when they went home," Maitre said. "But, we were very surprised to find out that if babies experience more painful procedures early in life, their sense of gentle touch can be affected."

The experience of touch is the beginnings of the development of human communication. Maitre says that development process may be interrupted by premature birth. The next step, researchers say, is to determine the longterm effects of such an interruption.

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