Differences in brain wiring could help explain why children born premature are at greater risk for autism and other developmental disorders, researchers say.

Preterm birth appears to change the level of activity in key areas of the brain, according to findings published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at 66 infants, 47 of whom were born before 33 weeks and the rest who were delivered at term. They found that babies born at term exhibited mature brain connectivity that is similar to what’s seen in adults.

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Children born prior to 33 weeks, however, had less connectivity in areas known to support higher cognitive functioning, the study found. At the same time, babies born premature exhibited stronger connectivity in regions responsible for the face, lips, jaw, tongue and throat. The differences were increasingly pronounced the earlier a child was born.

Stronger connectivity with facial functions in premature children could be related to early exposure to breast-feeding and bottle-feeding, researchers said, while more limited connections to regions related to cognition may offer clues to later challenges.

“The next stage of our work will be to understand how these findings relate to the learning, concentration and social difficulties which many of these children experience as they grow older,” said the study’s lead author Hilary Toulmin of King’s College London.