Preterm infants have high rates of delays and
Scientists know from research that this can be
linked to early problems reacting to sensations in
Infants who have difficulties responding to touch,
sound, position changes, and sights also have
problems with movement, learning language, and
higher cognitive skills.
However, when given positive, supportive touch, such
as skin-to-skin care by parents, while still in the
hospital, their brain responses become more like
those of full-term babies by the time they go home.
All babies need supportive touch to build essential
connections in their brains.
For preterm infants, providing this touch is
especially important because they miss months of
typical development inside the uterus of the mother,
where they receive constant, non-noxious tactile
This tactile feedback is essential, as it happens
during a critical period of brain development.
In some other sensory systems, when input does not
happen during critical windows, the entire sensory
system can be permanently affected.
Every year, 15 million preterm infants are born, and
most spend their first weeks in neonatal intensive
care units (NICUs).
Although essential for the support and survival of
these infants, NICU sensory environments are
dramatically different from those in which full-term
infants mature and thus likely impact the
development of functional brain organization.
Yet the integrity of sensory systems determines
effective perception and behavior.
In neonates, touch is a cornerstone of interpersonal
interactions and sensory-cognitive development.
NICU treatments used to improve neurodevelopmental
outcomes rely heavily on touch.
However, we understand little of how brain
maturation at birth (i.e., prematurity) and quality
of early-life experiences (e.g., supportive versus
painful touch) interact to shape the development of
the somatosensory system.
Researchers identified the spatial, temporal, and
amplitude characteristics of cortical responses to
light touch that differentiate them from sham
stimuli in full-term infants.
Scientists then utilized this data-driven analytical
framework to show that the degree of prematurity at
birth determines the extent to which brain responses
to light touch (but not sham) are attenuated at the
time of discharge from the hospital.
Building on these results, researchers showed that,
when controlling for prematurity and analgesics,
supportive experiences (e.g., breastfeeding,
skin-to-skin care) are associated with stronger
brain responses, whereas painful experiences (e.g.,
skin punctures, tube insertions) are associated with
reduced brain responses to the same touch stimuli.
These results shed crucial insights into the
mechanisms through which common early perinatal
experiences may shape the somatosensory scaffolding
of later perceptual, cognitive, and social
For more information
The Dual Nature of Early-Life Experience on
Somatosensory Processing in the Human Infant Brain
Nathalie L.Maitre, Alexandra P. Key, Olena D. Chorna,
James C. Slaughter, Pawel J. Matusz, Mark T.
Wallace, Micah M. Murray