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Are Premature Babies Smarter?

Medically reviewed by Mae Charisse Antalan, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Sep 20, 2023

Are Premature Babies Smarter?

Brain development in babies varies regardless of their maturity at birth. Numerous reports say that preterm birth results in slower brain development, while some researchers believe that premature babies are smarter. Here’s what science reveals about brain development in preemies.

The effect of prematurity in brain development is unclear

Before we reveal what science says about premature babies’ giftedness, let us first understand how their brain develops.

First, some studies identified that preterm babies have “decreased cerebral volumes at 7 to 15 years.” Moreover, researchers noted that the other brain parts also have smaller volumes compared to age-matched full-term counterparts.

Other investigations led scientists to believe that the various brain regions are “differentially vulnerable” to changes. For instance, the left hemisphere is most likely to be affected than the right hemisphere.

Interestingly, brain changes likewise vary depending on biological gender, with male preemies more vulnerable to white matter changes than female premature babies.

The bottom line is the actual effect of prematurity in brain development is still unclear. As of now, there are opposing themes: many believe that prematurity leads to learning difficulties.

In fact, learning challenges and social and emotional problems are possible long-term complications of preterm birth. On the other hand, some promising studies reveal that premature babies are smarter.

Let’s take a look at some of these studies.

Preemies have interrupted brain processes that affect cognitive functions

Do premature babies have cognitive advantages? According to some of the investigators from King’s College London, it is unlikely.

The researchers used diffusion MRI to see how the cerebral cortex develops among 55 preemies and 10 full-term infants. They found out that preemies have “reduced cortical development” compared to term babies.

Furthermore, they tested the infants again at two years and discovered that the babies with the slowest cortical development “performed less well” in neurodevelopmental assessments.

The conclusion is that prematurity interrupts some vital brain processes that affect the infant’s cognitive abilities.

Prematurity is linked to altered brain development

Researchers from Child & Family Research Institute came up with almost the same results as the scientists from King’s College London. Brain scans of 95 preemies revealed that those who grow slower also have slower cerebral cortex development.

Co-leader Dr. Steven Miller stated that the result is the first step in understanding the relationship between premature babies’ growth and brain development. With further studies, science might be able to discover steps to “optimize” their brain development.

Some studies reveal that premature babies are smarter

Now, let’s discuss the idea that premature babies have cognitive advantages.

In a large-scale study involving 1.3 million premature babies, the researchers revealed that two-thirds of those born at just 23 or 24 weeks are ready to enter kindergarten on time. Interestingly, almost 2% of them achieve “gifted status.”

Another study, on the other hand, suggests that preemies have “older” brains. In the study headed by Dr. Chiara Nosarti, the researchers analyzed the brain scans of 328 people born before the 33rd week.

The analysis happened twice: first, during the participants’ adolescence and the second, during adulthood.

premature babies are smarter

The investigators then compared the scans to 232 adults born full term. More specifically, they checked the volume of the grey matter, or the part of the brain considered as the marker for brain age. The grey matter also houses the brain regions that are responsible for sensory, memory, and other cognitive functions.

Surprisingly, those born very prematurely had lower grey matter volume in both adolescence and adulthood. This suggests that their brains are “older” than their full-term counterparts.

Dr. Chiara Nosarti emphasized that the results are surprising; after all, previous studies noted delayed brain maturation in preemies. In the end, she clarified that they haven’t figured out yet how these changes relate to the participants’ daily living.

Key Takeaways

As mentioned earlier, brain development varies regardless of the baby’s maturity at birth. Some reports say that preemies developed more slowly than term infants, while other studies indicate that premature babies are possibly smarter.

At the end of the day, parents must reduce the risk of preterm birth as it’s associated with numerous health complications. Once the baby is born, parents can promote health by working closely with their child’s pediatrician.

Learn more about Premature Babies here. 


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Mae Charisse Antalan, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Sep 20, 2023

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