Physiological evidence consistent with reduced neuroplasticity in human adolescents born preterm

Julia Pitcher, Alysha Riley, Sebastian Doeltgen, Lisa Kurylowicz, John Rothwell, Suzanne McAllister, Ashleigh Smith, Angela Clow, David Kennaway, Michael Ridding

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    43 Citations (Scopus)


    Preterm-born children commonly experience motor, cognitive, and learning difficulties that may be accompanied by altered brain microstructure, connectivity, and neurochemistry. However, the mechanisms linking the altered neurophysiology with the behavioral outcomes are unknown. Here we provide the first physiological evidence that human adolescents born preterm at or before 37 weeks of completed gestation have a significantly reduced capacity for cortical neuroplasticity, the key overall mechanism underlying learning and memory. We examined motor cortex neuroplasticity in three groups of adolescents who were born after gestations of ≤32 completed weeks (early preterm), 33-37 weeks (late preterm), and 38 -41 weeks (term) using a noninvasive transcranial magnetic brain stimulation technique to induce long-term depression (LTD)-like neuroplasticity. Compared with term-born adolescents, both early and late preterm adolescents had reduced LTD-like neuroplasticity in response to brain stimulation that was also associated with low salivary cortisol levels. We also compared neuroplasticity in term-born adolescents with that in term-born young adults, finding that the motor cortex retains a relatively enhanced neuroplastic capacity in adolescence. These findings provide a possible mechanistic link between the altered brain physiology of preterm birth and the subsequent associated behavioral deficits, particularly in learning and memory. They also suggest that altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function due to preterm birth may be a significant modulator of this altered neuroplasticity. This latter finding may offer options in the development of possible therapeutic interventions.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)16410-16416
    Number of pages7
    JournalJournal of Neuroscience
    Issue number46
    Publication statusPublished - 14 Nov 2012


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