Groundbreaking research into the brains of premature babies is paving the way for doctors to pinpoint children who will face developmental problems growing up.

MRI scans of newborns suggest the part of the brain which supports lifelong learning is present before a baby is born and is affected in the case of preterm babies.

Scientists from the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory (JBRL), set up by Gordon and Sarah Brown, say problems are currently only identified once children reach school age, when they are not able to keep up with their peers.

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But the pioneering research suggests that children who may need extra learning support can be identified before they start to school.

Scientists are now tracking a group of 400 babies to see how they develop over the next few years.

As part of this study they will examine how the learning abilities of the children develop as they grow up and relate this back to MRI scans of the premature babies’ brains.

The aim is to reach a broader understanding of developmental problems as a result of being born too early or too small.

Professor James Boardman, scientific director of JBRL and consultant in neonatal medicine at Edinburgh University, said: “If MRI in the baby period does predict later abilities, then it may serve as a good way of detecting those children who need extra support in the early years.

"At present, difficulties often only arise when the children get to school, which misses a critical period in the early years when interventions could help. This is a very exciting time.”

The JBRL was set up by Sarah Brown and husband, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, when their daughter Jennifer was born prematurely and died after just 10 days.

Sarah Brown said: “This new evidence gives us the chance to fully understand what’s going on and to then take these findings and improve the support provided to a preterm baby, especially in the crucial early months and years.

"Seeing new evidence emerge is exciting and drives us to find out more.”