Preterm birth is associated with an increased risk of neurodevelopmental disability, owing primarily to hypoxic-ischemic events. Damage to periventricular brain structures and white matter tracts is especially dangerous. Preterm children have lower levels of global intellectual function, attention, memory, and reasoning skills than their full-term peers by the time they reach school age.
An early start in life can cause problems well into adolescence. According to a study conducted by the University of Basel and the University Children’s Hospital Basel (UKBB), training motor skills in these children benefits them even when they are older.
Children born before the 37th week of pregnancy are closely monitored by doctors for the rest of their lives. Any cognitive limitations usually vanish after a few years. Children born before the 32nd week of pregnancy, on the other hand, exhibit differences even into their adolescence. Researchers led by Dr. Sebastian Ludyga and Professor Uwe Pühse demonstrated in a new study that these children have poorer impulse control than children born at term (after the 37th week of pregnancy). This, for example, can have a negative impact on academic performance and is linked to behavioral issues and a higher susceptibility to addiction.
A premature start in life can cause problems even into the teenage years. A study indicates that training motor skills in these children help even when they are older.
These differences in impulse control can be fully explained by the children’s motor skills, according to the research team’s report in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. “In other words, when it came to impulse control, premature children with very well-developed motor skills were practically equal to children born at term,” explains Ludyga.
The researchers compared a group of 54 very preterm children aged 9 to 13 years to a control group of children of the same age who were born at term in their study. The sports scientists conducted a “go/no go” test with the children to assess impulse control. When given a signal, the young participants in the study had to press a button as quickly as possible. When they were given a different signal, they were not allowed to press the button; in other words, they had to suppress their desire to move.
The cause of the co-occurring motor and cognitive delays may differ between children born prematurely and those born moderately to late. The disruptions to brain development become less severe as gestational age advances, but the associations remain moderately strong.
During the experiment, the researchers used an EEG (electroencephalogram) to monitor specific brain activity parameters to determine how the children processed the stimulus. A comparison of the two groups revealed that premature children, on average, found it more difficult to suppress the urge to move due to impaired attention processes.
The researchers then tested gross and fine motor skills, as well as ball handling, in subsequent experiments. They discovered that the greater the deficit in motor skills, the more limited the impulse control in very preterm children.
Predicting neurodevelopmental outcomes after preterm birth has long piqued the interest of neonatologists and other health care workers involved in the care of premature babies. While many studies show evidence of prediction of childhood outcomes in the motor domain, prediction of cognitive skills lags.
“Based on these findings, we conclude that targeted motor skills training could also reduce cognitive limitations,” says Ludyga. A follow-up study is now being planned by the researchers. According to Ludyga, there are few support options for very premature children as they grow into teenagers unless they are investigated for another reason, such as ADHD or another illness: “Limited impulse control at this age, even if it sorts itself out later, can have negative consequences and limit these children’s educational opportunities.”
The development of motor and cognitive skills is particularly important in young children. The time span from 9 to 13 years is thus a promising period for reducing cognitive deficits in children born very prematurely.