Premature birth: why are premature babies at increased risk of developing ADHD? | Children's Charity

Premature birth: why are premature babies at increased risk of developing ADHD?

This research was completed on 3 March 2016

Published on 15 February 2013

Over 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK every year.1-4 These babies are at increased risk of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other psychiatric problems, including anxiety, social difficulties and autism. Professor Jonna Kuntsi and her team, of King’s College London, are investigating why. Their work could make it possible to identify earlier in children’s lives whether they are likely to have problems, so they can get help sooner. It could also pave the way to better therapies.

What is the problem and who does it affect?

“No-one knows exactly why, but a premature birth puts babies at increased risk of developing certain psychiatric problems, including ADHD, anxiety, social difficulties and autism,” says Professor Kuntsi. “Unfortunately, it’s not possible to tell the parents of a newborn whether their baby will be affected, but those who are can experience serious difficulties during childhood and beyond.”

Children with ADHD, for example, tend to be overactive and impulsive, with a short attention span. They may seem restless, are easily distracted and often fidget constantly.

“Children with ADHD can have trouble with schoolwork, meaning they underachieve academically,” explains Professor Kuntsi. “They can find it hard to avoid common hazards. They can also have problems forming positive relationships with both their friends and family. The children’s self-esteem can be low and some of them suffer also from depression or anxiety.”

Estimates suggest around two thirds of children with ADHD find their problems persist into adult life, when they can experience additional, sometimes severe, difficulties.5

“There is no cure for ADHD,” adds Professor Kuntsi. “Medical and psychological treatments can help control symptoms, although the benefits of medicines cease if children stop taking them.” The demand for new treatments that offer long-term benefits is high.

What is the project trying to achieve?

“We hope to boost understanding of how premature birth puts babies at increased risk of developing ADHD, by looking for changes within the brain in 150 adolescents who were born early,” explains Professor Kuntsi. “We are investigating whether the changes we find have anything in common with changes that we’ve already detected in adolescents with ADHD.”

The adolescents and their siblings are taking part in a variety of tests, including EEG (electroencephalopathy), which involves wearing a comfortable cap, containing electrodes that measure brain activity.

“We aim to estimate the extent to which environmental factors and genetic susceptibility each contribute to the changes we find in the children’s brains, and find out whether there is a link between how early the children are born and the severity of their problems,” explains Professor Kuntsi. “We are also investigating the link between an early birth and anxiety, social difficulties and symptoms of autism.”

Professor Kuntsi hopes her work will eventually allow earlier identification of children’s difficulties, so they can get help sooner. It may also lead to better therapies.

What are the researchers’ credentials?

The research team has an excellent track record. Team members have complimentary expertise that is perfect for this study – in using EEG to study brain function in ADHD, in clinical and genetic aspects of the disorder, and in the complex statistical analyses needed to interpret the data that they are generating.

Project LeaderProfessor Jonna Kuntsi BSc MSc PhD CPsychol
Project team
  • Professor Philip Asherson PhD MRCPsych
  • Dr F Rijsdijk MSc PhD
LocationMRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London
Duration3 years
Grant awarded15 November 2012
Start date4 March 2013
End date3 March 2016
Grant amount£169,944.00
Grant codeGN2080

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  1. Office of National Statistics. (24 Jan 2013) Live births in England and Wales by characteristics of the mother 1, 2011 [Online]. Available from [Accessed 25 January 2013] No. of live births = 723,913
  2. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency Registrar General Annual Report 2011 (Section 3 Births, Table 3) [Online] Available from [Accessed 25 January 2013]. No. of live births = 25,273
  3. General Register Office for Scotland Vital Events Reference Tables 20011 (Section 3 Births; Table 3.1b) [Online]. Available from [Accessed 25 January 2013]. No. of live births = 58,590
  4. Office of National Statistics News Release 24 July 2007. Pre term birth data (2005) - 7.7% live births in England and Wales are born preterm (before 37 weeks gestation). [Online] Available from [Accessed 25 January 2013]
  5. Faraone SV, Biederman J, Mick E. The age-dependent decline of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a meta-analysis of follow-up studies. Psychol Med 2006;36(2):159-65.
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