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Early Hum Dev. 2010 Jul;86 Suppl 1:73-5. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2010.01.010. Epub 2010 Feb 13.

Visual performance and brain structures in the developing brain of pre-term infants.

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NICU, Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico, Mangiagalli and Regina Elena, IRCCS, University of Milan, Milan, Italy.


The presence of abnormal visual function has been related to overt lesions in the thalami, peritrigonal white matter (such as cavitational-necrotic periventricular leucomalacia) and optic radiations, and also to the extent of occipital cortex involvement. The normal development of visual function seems to depend on the integrity of a network that includes not only optic radiations and the primary visual cortex but also other cortical and subcortical areas, such as the frontal or temporal lobes or basal ganglia, which have been found to play a topical role in the development of vision. Therefore, the complex functions and functional connectivity of the developing brain of premature infants can be studied only with highly sophisticated techniques such as diffusion tensor tractography. The combined use of visual tests and neonatal structural and functional neuroimaging, which have become available for newborn infants, provides a better understanding of the correlation between structure and function from early life. This appears to be particularly relevant considering the essential role of early visual function in cognitive development. The identification of early visual impairment is also important, as it allows for early enrolment in intervention programmes. The association of clinical and functional studies to newer imaging techniques, which are being increasingly used also in neonates, are likely to provide further information on early aspects of vision and the mechanisms underlying brain plasticity, which are still not fully understood. Early exposure to a difficult postnatal environment together with early and unexpected removal from a protective milieu are exclusive and peculiar factors of prematurity that interfere with the normal development of the visual system in pre-term babies. The problem is further compounded by the influence of different perinatal brain lesions affecting the developing brain of premature babies. Nevertheless, in the last few decades, there have been considerable advances in our understanding of the development of vision in pre-term infants during early infancy. This has mainly been due to the development of age-specific tests assessing various aspects of visual function, from ophthalmological examination to more cortical aspects of vision, such as the ability to process orientation or different aspects of visual attention [1-7]. Improvements in understanding very early and specific neurological impairments in neurological functions have been reported in pre-term infants, known to be at risk of developing visual and visual-perceptual impairment. These impairments are due not only to retinopathy, a common finding in premature infants, but also to cerebral (central) visual impairment, secondary to brain lesions affecting the central visual pathway.

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