Background: Infants born very preterm (<33 weeks) are at increased risk of neurocognitive deficits. Their neurodevelopmental outcome up to age 8 years can be predicted by neonatal ultrasonography, but little is known of their later function. We investigated the effect of very preterm birth on brain structure and neurocognitive and behavioural functioning in adolescence.
Methods: A cohort of 105 infants born before 33 weeks of gestation in 1979-80 had ultrasonographic scans at University College Hospital, London, and were prospectively examined at 1, 4, and 8 years. At age 14-15 years, 72 of those who remained in UK (cases) and 21 age-matched full-term controls underwent brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as well as neurological, cognitive, and behavioural assessment. MRI images were assessed by two neuroradiologists unaware of ultrasonographic findings or case or control status.
Findings: Of the 72 cases, 40 had unequivocally abnormal MRI and 15 had equivocal scans. Of the 21 controls, one had abnormal and five equivocal MRI. Abnormalities of ventricles, corpus callosum, and white matter were especially common in cases. More brain lesions were identified by MRI than by neonatal ultrasonography. The cases had significantly more reading, adjustment, and neurological impairments than controls, but their behaviour was significantly related to MRI abnormality.
Interpretation: Individuals born very preterm show an excess of neurocognitive and behavioural problems in adolescence, and more than half have abnormal MRI brain scans.