Premature labour is associated with inflammation in the mother or baby, often due to infection. This can cause damage to the brain that could lead to lifelong conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism or learning or behavioural difficulties in up to 30 per cent of pre-term babies.
In the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers found a gene, known as DLG4, in microglial cells, which control the immune response in the brain, in responding to this inflammation.
The finding suggests that DLG4 is involved in the process of brain damage in some pre-term babies. It also identified differences in the way DLG4 was expressed in microglia in both the mouse models and brain scans.
"We have shown that the DLG4 gene is expressed differently in microglia when a brain has been damaged by inflammation," said David Edwards, Professor at King's College London.
The study provides "a new avenue to study and understand how this inflammation and subsequent brain damage is caused so that scientists can work towards more effective treatments for diseases such as autism and cerebral palsy, by stopping or even preventing the inflammation associated with pre-term birth", Edwards added.
For the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, the team used an integrative approach which included mouse models of inflammation and a genomic analysis of over 500 infant brain scans.
The result contributes to an existing body of evidence that links the gene with both the immune response and neuropsychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia and autism, the researchers said.