Kangaroo Mother Care - where a premature infant remains in skin-to-skin contact with the mother rather than being placed in an incubator - has lasting positive impacts on brain development, say Canadian scientists at the Université Laval.
The findings, in the journal Acta Paediatrica, show that very premature infants who benefited from this technique had better brain functioning in adolescence - comparable to that of adolescents born at full term - than did premature infants placed in incubators.
The study involved assessing the subjects fifteen years after birth. Specifically; 18 premature infants kept in incubators, 21 premature infants held in Kangaroo contact for an average of 29 days, and 9 term infants.
The researchers assessed the brain function of the teenagers using transcranial magnetic stimulation. With this non-invasive and painless technique they could activate brain cells in targeted areas, namely the primary motor cortex that controls muscles. By measuring muscle responses to the stimulation, they were able to assess brain functions such as the level of brain excitability and inhibition, cell synchronization, neural conduction speed, and coordination between the two cerebral hemispheres.
The researchers say that all brain functions of the adolescent Kangaroo group were comparable to those of the term infant group. On the other hand, premature infants placed in incubators significantly deviated from the other two groups 15 years after their birth.
"Thanks to Kangaroo Mother Care, infants benefited from nervous system stimulation - the sound of the parent's heart and the warmth of their body - during a critical period for the development of neural connections between the cerebral hemispheres. This promoted immediate and future brain development," suggests neurophysiologist and study author Cyril Schneider.
Co-researcher Réjean Tessier notes that "infants in incubators also receive a lot of stimulation, but often the stimulation is too intense and stressful for the brain capacity of the very premature. The Kangaroo Mother Care reproduces the natural conditions of the intrauterine environment in which the infants would have developed had they not been born premature. These beneficial effects on the brain are in evidence at least until adolescence and perhaps beyond."
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Source: Université Laval