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Touch, skin-to-skin care by parents shapes the brain of preterm babies (2017-06-07)

Preterm infants have high rates of delays and neurodevelopmental impairments.
Scientists know from research that this can be linked to early problems reacting to sensations in daily life.

Infants who have difficulties responding to touch, sound, position changes, and sights also have problems with movement, learning language, and higher cognitive skills.

However, when given positive, supportive touch, such as skin-to-skin care by parents, while still in the hospital, their brain responses become more like those of full-term babies by the time they go home.

All babies need supportive touch to build essential connections in their brains.

For preterm infants, providing this touch is especially important because they miss months of typical development inside the uterus of the mother, where they receive constant, non-noxious tactile feedback.

This tactile feedback is essential, as it happens during a critical period of brain development.

In some other sensory systems, when input does not happen during critical windows, the entire sensory system can be permanently affected.

Every year, 15 million preterm infants are born, and most spend their first weeks in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).

Although essential for the support and survival of these infants, NICU sensory environments are dramatically different from those in which full-term infants mature and thus likely impact the development of functional brain organization.

Yet the integrity of sensory systems determines effective perception and behavior.

In neonates, touch is a cornerstone of interpersonal interactions and sensory-cognitive development.
NICU treatments used to improve neurodevelopmental outcomes rely heavily on touch.

However, we understand little of how brain maturation at birth (i.e., prematurity) and quality of early-life experiences (e.g., supportive versus painful touch) interact to shape the development of the somatosensory system.

Researchers identified the spatial, temporal, and amplitude characteristics of cortical responses to light touch that differentiate them from sham stimuli in full-term infants.

Scientists then utilized this data-driven analytical framework to show that the degree of prematurity at birth determines the extent to which brain responses to light touch (but not sham) are attenuated at the time of discharge from the hospital.

Building on these results, researchers showed that, when controlling for prematurity and analgesics, supportive experiences (e.g., breastfeeding, skin-to-skin care) are associated with stronger brain responses, whereas painful experiences (e.g., skin punctures, tube insertions) are associated with reduced brain responses to the same touch stimuli.

These results shed crucial insights into the mechanisms through which common early perinatal experiences may shape the somatosensory scaffolding of later perceptual, cognitive, and social development.

For more information
The Dual Nature of Early-Life Experience on Somatosensory Processing in the Human Infant Brain
Nathalie L.Maitre, Alexandra P. Key, Olena D. Chorna, James C. Slaughter, Pawel J. Matusz, Mark T. Wallace, Micah M. Murray