London: Babies born very prematurely are more likely to have socially withdrawn personalities as adults, a new study has found.
Researchers found that the adults born very preterm scored highly for displaying a socially withdrawn personality, indicated by autistic features, neuroticism, introversion and decreased risk taking.
"Personality characteristics are very important because they help people to develop into adult roles and form and maintain social relationships," said Dieter Wolke, professor at the Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, who led the study.
"Very premature and very low birth weight adults who have a socially withdrawn personality might experience difficulty dealing with social relationships with their peers, friends and partners," Wolke said.
The study, conducted in Germany, followed children from birth into adulthood.
Two hundred adults born between 1985-86, either very premature (before 32 weeks) or with very low birth weight (less than 1.5 kilogrammes), and a similar number of term born adults provided information about personality features.
The results were not sex-specific, related to income or education, and were compared to a control group of adults who were born healthy in the same obstetric wards.
The findings indicated that being born with a very low birth weight or very pre-term carries a greater risk of developing a withdrawn personality as an adult.
Wolke attributes brain development related to premature birth for very pre-term or very low birth weight adults scoring higher for a socially withdrawn personality.
Previous studies have linked poor peer relations and social-emotional problems in childhood with regional disruptions in the white matter, in the right orbital frontal cortex which is a region involved in social regulations and social cognition.
Early stresses experienced in the womb and having over-protective parents are also thought to be a possible factor in effecting a withdrawn personality.
"Defining a general personality profile is important because this higher order personality factor may help to partly explain the social difficulties these individuals experience in adult roles, such as in peer and partner relationships and career," Wolke said.
"Previous studies have found they are more likely to be bullied at school and less likely to progress to university or attain well paid employment. They are also less likely to form social contacts, to maintain romantic relationships and to have children," Wolke said.
"If identified early parents could be provided with techniques to foster their child's social skills to help compensate for socially withdrawn personality characteristics," Wolke said.
The study was published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood: Fetal & Neonatal Edition.