A new £1.5 million study aimed at improving care for premature babies is being launched by Sarah Brown, wife of former prime minister Gordon Brown.
The Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort will track the development of 400 babies who are born before 32 weeks, following them right to adulthood.
The research is being funded by the Theirworld global children’s charity, which Mrs Brown founded and is president of.
Mrs Brown, whose first child Jennifer Jane lived for just 10 days after being born seven weeks prematurely, said: “This is a unique project which will help give babies the chance of the best start in life and Theirworld is proud to fund it.”
About 15 million babies across the world are born prematurely – before 37 weeks – making them more at risk of suffering conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders and learning difficulties.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh will follow 400 premature newborns, who are more at risk of suffering brain damage, collecting biological samples and brain scans as well as information on their educational attainment.
They will use this to help identify the causes and consequences of brain injury at birth but researchers also hope their work will help speed the development of new treatments that could improve the health of these youngsters.
By following them over the course of their lives, the team also hopes to gain further understanding of how being born prematurely can affect health in later years.
Following the death of their first child in 2002, Mr and Mrs Brown set up a research fund to investigate the causes of premature births.
Mrs Brown was also one of the driving forces behind the establishment in 2004 of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory, which is based at the University of Edinburgh.
She said: “Since the formation of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory 12 years ago, we have been strong supporters of the ground-breaking work of the brilliant young scientists there.
“Now, this new Theirworld project opens up the opportunity to really study the long-term effects of early birth to enhance learning and develop new approaches to help babies with a vulnerable start in life.
“We are so grateful to the families generously giving their time with their precious babies to share information and contribute to this study over the coming years.”
Dr James Boardman, leading researcher at the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory, said: “Every year around 15 million babies are born prematurely.
“In recent years survival rates for these children have improved but they often live with serious consequences of early brain injury, which limits their potential.
“Following children from birth to adulthood will help us understand the most important determinants of risk and resilience for long-term outcome after premature birth, and by studying biological samples we hope to develop treatments to improve their lifelong health.”