Open Access Open Badges Research article

Low birthweight and preterm birth in young people with special educational needs: a magnetic resonance imaging analysis

Michael D Spencer1*, T William J Moorhead1, Rod J Gibson2, Andrew M McIntosh1, Jessika ED Sussmann1, David GC Owens1, Stephen M Lawrie1 and Eve C Johnstone1

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh, Kennedy Tower, Royal Edinburgh Hospital, Morningside Park, Edinburgh EH10 5HF, UK

2 Division of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Edinburgh, Western General Hospital, Crewe Road, Edinburgh EH4 2XU, UK

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BMC Medicine 2008, 6:1  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-6-1

Published: 30 January 2008



Although neuroanatomical and cognitive sequelae of low birthweight and preterm birth have been investigated, little is understood as to the likely prevalence of a history of low birthweight or preterm birth, or neuroanatomical correlates of such a history, within the special educational needs population. Our aim was to address these issues in a sample of young people receiving additional learning support.


One hundred and thirty-seven participants aged 13–22 years, receiving additional learning support, were recruited via their schools or colleges and underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Obstetric records, available in 98 cases, included birthweight and gestational data in 90 and 95 cases, respectively. Both qualitative and quantitative voxel-based analyses of MRI data were conducted.


A history of low birthweight and preterm birth was present in 13.3% and 13.7% of cases, respectively. Low birthweight and preterm birth were associated with specific qualitative anomalies, including enlargement of subarachnoid cisterns and thinning of the corpus callosum. Low birthweight was associated with reduced grey matter density (GMD) in the superior temporal gyrus (STG) bilaterally, left inferior temporal gyrus and left insula. Prematurity of birth was associated with reduced GMD in the STG bilaterally, right inferior frontal gyrus and left cerebellar hemisphere. Comparison of subjects with no history of low birthweight or preterm birth with a previously defined control sample of cognitively unimpaired adolescents (n = 72) demonstrated significantly greater scores for several anomalies, including thinning of the corpus callosum, loss of white matter and abnormalities of shape of the lateral ventricles.


Although a two-fold increased prevalence of a history of low birthweight and preterm birth exists within the special educational needs population, other aetiological factors must be considered for the overwhelming majority of cases. Neuroanatomical findings within this sample include qualitative anomalies of brain structure and grey matter deficits within temporal lobe structures and the cerebellum that persist into adolescence. These findings suggest a neurodevelopmental mechanism for the cognitive difficulties associated with these obstetric risk factors.