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expert reaction to premature babies and personality disorders

In a paper published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood journal, a group of researchers have investigated a possible link between babies who were born very early or with a much lower than average weight, and different personality traits. The authors report that adults who were in either of those categories were more likely to display features of introversion, autism and neuroticism as well as lower risk taking.


Prof. Celso Arango, President-Elect of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) and Professor of Psychiatry, Gregorio Maranon General University Hospital, Madrid, said:

“This is a very interesting paper that looked into the impact of birth weight on adult personality. The authors followed a prospective cohort study group for 26 years and compared the data with a control group. They found that very preterm and/or very low birth weight babies scored significantly higher in autistic features, introversion and neuroticism.

“Personality is an expression of brain function, so if a brain functions abnormally then it will impact on personality. At its extremes, brain development can be sufficiently abnormal as to lead to personality disorders. Therefore, it is not surprising that brains exposed to ‘extra utero’ conditions too early, or that suffer other insults perinatally, are more likely to show behaviours that are further away from the mean for the general population. In this particular study those behaviours include introversion, communication problems or being overly worried.

“Currently, we do not know what the mechanics are by which preterm or low birth weight increases the risk of a socially withdrawn personality. In this study affected children had lower IQ and, although the authors controlled for this statistically, the truth is that these children may be more insecure and have a different approach to life as a response to the difficulties they experienced.

“This paper adds evidence to the large number of studies showing that preterm and/or very low birth weight children are more likely to have an abnormal brain development and therefore are at increased risk of having brain disorders (including intellectual disability, autism, ADHD, psychosis, etc).”


Dr Chiara Nosarti, Reader in Neurodevelopment & Mental Health, King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, said:

“This is an important study which provides convincing evidence that events that occur early in development contribute to specific aspects of personality.

“From a neurodevelopmental perspective, the features characterizing a socially withdrawn personality following very preterm birth described in this study could be understood in the context of specific alterations in brain structure and function affecting socio-emotion processing networks comprising the amygdala, occipito-temporal and orbitofrontal cortices (which we have described in, with important implications for psychopathology.

“Future research should focus on providing mechanistic insights as to how personality traits may be associated with brain alterations observed in individuals who were born very premature/ with a very low birth weight. Such information could help devising targeted interventions aimed at alleviating the impact of a socially withdrawn personality on life outcomes, as the authors suggest, by exploiting neural network plasticity, the life-long process by which the brain adapts to change.”


Personality of adults who were born very preterm’ by Eryigit-Madzwamuse et al. will be published in Archives of Disease in Childhood on Monday 27th July 2015. 


Declared interests

None received

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