Scientists have discovered crucial new information about how a foetus develops which could explain why very premature babies suffer health problems.
Researchers from the University of Aberdeen were joined by colleagues from Glasgow, British Columbia and Queen Mary University of London as part of the study.
It is well-known that babies born before 32 weeks of pregnancy often suffer from dehydration, a drop in blood pressure and in some cases die.
The team found that even at 20 weeks of pregnancy, babies in the womb do not yet create a vital hormone called aldosterone, which “likely explains some of the risks facing premature babies”.
Findings will help inform the understanding and treatment of premature babies.
The study showed that while a foetus’ adrenal glands are active throughout the second trimester of pregnancy, they do not yet make aldosterone.
As such, babies born before 32 weeks do not have fully functioning adrenal glands and so they are at risk of salt wasting.
Professor Paul Fowler, pictured, director of the institute of medical sciences at the University of Aberdeen said: “There are still many things we do not fully understand about how the foetus develops in the womb.
“This study helps shed new light on the development of this crucial gland and its potential impact on a pre-maturely born baby.”
Zoe Johnston, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow and the first author of the crucial study, added: “This study identifies important information required for the detection and treatment of salt-wasting disorders in very premature babies.
“It is also striking that the baby’s kidneys can detect aldosterone and so rely on their mother’s adrenal glands until their own are fully functional.”