Correlation between white matter microstructure and executive functions suggests early developmental influence on long fibre tracts in preterm born adolescents
Main objectives Executive functions are frequently a weakness in children born preterm. We examined associations of executive functions and general cognitive abilities with brain structure in preterm born adolescents who were born with appropriate weight for gestational age and who have no radiological signs of preterm brain injury on neuroimaging. Methods The Stockholm Neonatal Project (SNP) is a longitudinal, population-based study of children born preterm (<36 weeks of gestation) with very low birth weight (<1501g) between 1988–1993. At age 18 years (mean 18 years, SD 2 weeks) 134 preterm born and 94 full term participants underwent psychological assessment (general intelligence, executive function measures). Of these, 71 preterm and 63 full term participants underwent Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) at mean 15.2 years (range 12–18 years), including 3D T1-weighted images for volumetric analyses and Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) for assessment of white matter microstructure. Group comparisons of regional grey and white matter volumes and fractional anisotropy (FA, as a measure of white matter microstructure) and, within each group, correlation analyses of cognitive measures with MRI metrics were carried out. Results Significant differences in grey and white matter regional volumes and widespread differences in FA were seen between the two groups. No significant correlations were found between cognitive measures and brain volumes in any group after correction for multiple comparisons. However, there were significant correlations between FA in projection fibres and long association fibres, linking frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes, and measures of executive function and general cognitive abilities in the preterm born adolescents, but not in the term born adolescents. Overall significance of the study In persons born preterm, in the absence of perinatal brain injury on visual inspection of MRI, widespread alterations in regional brain tissue volumes and microstructure are present in adolescence/young adulthood. Importantly, these alterations in WM tracts are correlated with measures of executive function and general cognitive abilities. Our findings suggest that disturbance of neural pathways, rather than changes in regional brain volumes, are involved in the impaired cognitive functions.