Brain scans of days-old premature babies could help researchers determine the best feeding style for brain development, lowering the babies' risk of learning difficulties.

The world-first study will be led by Distinguished Professor Jane Harding at the University of Auckland-based Liggins Institute in collaboration with Professor Steve Miller from the renowned Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada. It will run at Auckland City, North Shore, Waitakere and Middlemore hospitals.

Researchers will take MRI scans of preterm babies' brains a few days after birth, and then again at their due date, to see how nutrition in the first days, while the babies are still learning how to breastfeed, affects brain growth and development. For the MRI scans, the researchers will use a technique pioneered in Toronto.

"We feed the babies, tuck them up in a special incubator that is compatible with the MRI scanner, and wait for them to go sleep, so they keep still during the scan. Then we slide the whole incubator into the MRI machine, so the baby is not disturbed," said Harding.

The scan takes 30-40 minutes cut short if the baby wakes up and is completely safe. Professor Harding: "MRI has been used for many years as a routine assessment of even the tiniest preterm babies in many hospitals overseas. It is non-invasive, involves no radiation and has no known side effects."

The main DIAMOND study has been running for 18 months. Babies are randomly allocated to receive intravenously just sugar water or sugar water plus protein. They also either receive a specially formulated human milk substitute via the feeding tube while waiting for mother's breast milk supply to build up, or just wait until the breast milk is available. 

Researchers in the new brain MRI study has proposed that giving babies protein-boosted sugar water intravenously may affect how the cerebral cortex – responsible for high-level brain functions matures.

They also propose that breastmilk may support developing connections between nerve cells and that exposure to the smell and taste of milk before a tube-feed may alter maturation of the thalamus – an important coordinating center at the base of the brain.

DIAMOND baby Aria's story

North Shore couple Deborah and Steven Markham had just driven back from a birthday party in Coromandel when Deborah's waters broke. Her baby their first was not due for another five weeks, so she called her midwife, who told her to go into the hospital.

"Her arriving early was completely unexpected," said Deborah. Within 12 hours, Aria was born. A healthy 2.5kg, she needed to be placed under special lights to prevent jaundice and spent 10 days in the hospital.