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September 2009 Issue
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Adelaide research among nation's best

 Obstetrics & Gynaecology

University of Adelaide research linking cognitive outcomes in children born pre-term with impaired motor development has been named among the top 10 health and medical research projects in Australia.

Neurophysiologist Dr Julia Pitcher and her team from the University's Robinson Institute in the School of Paediatrics and Reproductive Health are featured in a book launched in Canberra last month by the Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Health, the Hon. Mark Butler.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) launched 10 of the Best as part of CSIRO's National Science Week activities to inspire the next generation of researchers.

Dr Pitcher's four-year NHMRC-funded research project found evidence that even mild prematurity alters normal development of the motor cortex area of the brain which controls movement.

In a study of 28-year-olds, Dr Pitcher's team found that those who had low birth weights also had altered motor cortex function as adults, and that this predicted their educational achievement.

"What most surprised us was that, unexpectedly in these individuals who were not technically pre-term, or born earlier than 37 weeks gestation, we still saw an additional effect of shorter gestation on their motor cortex development," Dr Pitcher said.

An ongoing follow-up study has confirmed this, examining motor and cognitive development in children aged 11-13 years and showing that every week of gestation lost results in altered motor cortex development.

"These alterations in motor cortex development due to pre-term birth are much stronger predictors of cognitive outcome, particularly language and processing of speech, than gestation length itself," Dr Pitcher said.

"Babies from socio-economically disadvantaged homes tend to do the worst. The good news is that it appears a stimulating post-natal environment can ameliorate many of the negative consequences of pre-term birth on both motor and cognitive development.

"This is the first physiological evidence that the motor and cognitive dysfunction commonly experienced by pre-term children when they reach school age probably has a common underlying origin in the brain," Dr Pitcher said.

One of the main impacts of her team's research relates to these late or mildly pre-term children, born between 33-37 weeks of gestation.

"Many of these babies present as normal at birth, but there is increasing evidence that these children experience significant motor, cognitive and behavioural difficulties at school age. It seems every week of gestation is important."

Dr Pitcher's team hopes to develop early diagnostic markers and intervention strategies to minimise the impact of pre-term birth on a child's future development.

The NHMRC awarded Dr Pitcher a $266,500 Peter Doherty Fellowship in 2004 to undertake postdoctoral research in this area. In late 2008 her team was awarded another $460,000 to fund the ongoing study.

Since March 2009 Dr Pitcher has held an M.S. McLeod Research Fellowship in Paediatric Medicine at the Women's and Children's Hospital.

Story by Candy Gibson

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