Premature birth may trigger developmental processes in the brain's white matter that could put the child at an increased risk of problems later in life, a new study found.

Being born at 23-36 weeks, versus 37-42 weeks, is tied to a greater potential for a host of behavioral problems, including impulsiveness, autism and ADHD.

In order to better understand why this is, researches from the Radiological Society of North America used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to compare the concentrations of chemicals indicative of a mature brain in 51 full-term and 30 preterm babies.

Both showed normal MRI findings; however, MRS results revealed marked differences in the biochemical maturation of the white matter found in the brains of the term versus preterm infants. This discovery suggests a disruption in the maturation of white and gray brain matter, the scientists said.

"The road map of brain development is disturbed in these premature kids," Dr. Stefan Blüml, director of the New Imaging Technology Lab at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, said in a statement. "White matter development had an early start and was 'out of sync' with gray matter development."

White brain matter transmits signals and allows the different parts of the brain to communicate, while gray matter processes and sends out signals. According to Blüml, the "false start" in the development of white matter is caused by events that occur after the baby is born.

"This timeline of events might be disturbed in premature kids because there are significant physiological switches at birth, as well as stimulatory events, that happen irrespective of gestational maturity of the newborn," he said. "The most apparent change is the amount of oxygen that is carried by the blood."

When babies are born, they transition between from a low to a high-oxygen environment. "This change may be something premature brains are not ready for," he said.

Nevertheless, the newborn brain exhibits a high degree of plasticity, adapting and even rewiring itself, allowing the child not only to learn new skills quickly, but may also render him or her more responsive to therapy.

For this reason, Blüml argues, "Our research points to the need to better understand the impact of prematurity on the timing of critical maturational processes and to develop therapies aimed at regulating brain development."