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From Shots, NPR's Health Blog:
Scientists say they are beginning to understand why brain injuries are so common in very premature infants — and they are coming up with strategies to prevent or repair these injuries.
The advances could eventually help reduce the number of premature babies who develop cerebral palsy, epilepsy or behavioral disorders such as ADHD, researchers told the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C., this week.
Each year more than 60,000 babies are born weighing less than 3.3 pounds. And because of advances in neonatal medicine over the past several decades, most of those babies will survive. But researchers have had less success finding ways to prevent brain damage in these infants.
"That means that overall rates of cerebral palsy and other neurodevelopmental disabilities are on the rise," says David Rowitch, chief of neonatology at the University of California, San Francisco.
The most common cause of brain injury in premature infants is a lack of oxygen in the days and weeks after birth, Rowitch says. The lack of oxygen damages white matter, which provides the "communication highways" that carry messages around the brain and to distant parts of the body, he says.
 And the babies at greatest risk of this sort of brain damage are those born after as little as six months of gestation, Rowitch says.
"Such a baby would weigh about a pound and would fit into the palm of your hand," he says. "As you can imagine, they're very fragile and vulnerable to stresses."
Those stresses often include periods when an infant's immature lungs are not delivering enough oxygen to the brain, even with help from a mechanical breathing device.
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