A study from Kyoto University has linked premature birth with autism and social communication skills development. The study cites that babies born prematurely show a different attentional pattern, showing less interest in other people.

According to lead author Masahiro Imafuku, this lack of interest may indicate if these babies are developing normally or may have problems such as autism.  The nervous systems of preterm babies may develop differently compared to infants born full-term during their first year of life.

Initially, the team presented two videos of people and shapes to infants ages six to 12 years. The researchers explain that the infants’ gaze show interest, the more time spent looking at people means more interest in others.

Japanese researchers found evidence that babies born prematurely are less interested in other people compared to infants born full-term. Photo by Eiri Ono/Kyoto University

Japanese researchers found evidence that babies born prematurely are less interested in other people compared to infants born full-term. Photo by Eiri Ono/Kyoto University

They found that premature infants stared less at the people but were more interested in the shapes. Full-term babies spent more time looking at the people in the video rather than at the shapes.

The researchers also observe how well the full-term babies follow people’s eye directions. Following eye directions also indicate interest, understanding others as well as aiding in language acquisition.  On the other hand, premature infants showed difficulty in following their gazes.

Accordingly, this may show that premature birth is associated with autism. Other studies have also claimed that premature birth increases the risk for autism.

“Autism occurs from a mix of genetic and environmental factors. Preterm infants get a tremendous amount of stress in the early days of birth because the environment is profoundly different from that of the womb,” says lead researcher Masako Myowa-Yamakoshi. “This makes them much more prone to developmental difficulties, even if they seem perfectly fine when they leave the hospital.”

This is not the first time premature birth has been associated with developmental problems. Another study found that preterm babies have weaker vagus nerve, which helps in the heart, throat and cognitive functions.

The researchers warn that premature birth is on the rise, causing a lot of challenges. However, they also believe that this study can alleviate problems found in premature babies.