A high level of bacteria in the gut of premature babies may be linked to their increased risk of brain damage, a study has suggested.

The team from the University of Vienna said an overgrowth of the gastrointestinal tract with the bacterium Klebsiella could play a key role in neurological damage found in some premature babies.

Researchers investiagted the ‘gut-immune-brain axis’, the term used to describe how the early development of the gut, the brain and the immune system are linked.

First author of the study David Seki said: “We investigated the role this axis plays in the brain development of extreme preterm infants. The microorganisms of the gut microbiome – which is a vital collection of hundreds of species of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes – are in equilibrium in healthy people. However, especially in premature babies, whose immune system and microbiome have not been able to develop fully, shifts are quite likely to occur. These shifts may result in negative effects on the brain.”

The study involved 60 premature babies born before 28 weeks and weighing less than 1 kilogram, with researchers following their progress for weeks or months. They looked closely at the microbiome and analysed blood and stool samples, brain wave recordings and MRI images of the babies’ brains.

David Berry, microbiologist and head of the research group at the Centre for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science at the University of Vienna, said: “We have been able to identify certain patterns in the microbiome and immune response that are clearly linked to the progression and severity of brain injury.

“Crucially, such patterns often show up prior to changes in the brain. This suggests a critical time window during which brain damage of extremely premature infants may be prevented from worsening or even avoided.”

Identifying these biomarkers mark the starting point for the development of targeted therapies and further research into the significance of the microbiome and its role in the neurological development of premature infants.

Read the study.

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