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Premature babies have significantly greater risk of mental disorders: study

LONDON--Babies born prematurely have a much higher risk of developing severe mental disorders including psychosis, bipolar disorder and depression, according to a study to be published on Monday.

Scientists in Britain and Sweden found that people born very prematurely — at less than 32 weeks' gestation — were three times more likely than those born at term to be hospitalized with a psychiatric illness at age 16 and older.

The researchers think the increased risk may be down to small but important differences in brain development in babies born before a full 40-week gestation period. The risk varied depending on the condition — psychosis was 2.5 times more likely for premature babies, severe depression 3 times more likely, and bipolar disorder 7.4 times more likely for those born before 32 weeks.

The study, to be published in the Archives of General Psychiatry journal, also found smaller but significant increased psychiatric risks for babies born only moderately early, at between 32 and 36 weeks.

Chiara Nosarti from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, who led the research, said it showed “a very strong link” between premature birth and psychiatric disorders.

“Since we considered only the most severe cases that resulted in hospitalization, it may be that in real terms this link is even stronger,” Nosarti told reporters at a briefing.

She stressed, however, that: “The majority of individuals who are born prematurely have no psychiatric or cognitive problems and are absolutely healthy and well functioning.”

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