Traditionally early brain insult (EBI) has been considered to have better outcome than later injury, consistent with the notion that the young brain is flexible and able to reorganize. Recent research findings question this view, suggesting that EBI might lead to poorer outcome than brain insult at any other age. Exploring this early vulnerability perspective, we investigated whether skills developing later in childhood, for example, executive functions (EF), would be at greater risk of disruption from EBI. The aim of this study was to investigate EF in children sustaining EBI at different developmental stages. We expected that brain insult during gestation and infancy, before the emergence of EF, would lead to global EF deficits. In contrast, we predicted that brain injury in late childhood would have fewer consequences. Using a cross-sectional, retrospective, group design we compared six groups of children (Total N=164), with a history of brain insult and documented focal brain pathology, aged 10-16 years on a range of measures of EF. Groups were based on age of EBI: (1) Congenital; (2) Peri-natal; (3) Infancy; (4) Preschool; (5) Middle Childhood; and (6) Late Childhood. Children with EBI were at increased risk for impairment across all aspects of EF. Presence of seizures and/or frontal pathology were not predictive of outcome, but age at insult was. Children sustaining EBI before age 3 recorded more global and severe EF deficits, while children with later EBI performed closer to normal expectations. With the exception of attentional control, skills emerging at time of insult were found to be more vulnerable to disruption than those previously established, supporting the 'early vulnerability' model for EBI.
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