Executive functions in extremely low birth weight and late-preterm preschoolers: effects on working memory and response inhibition

Child Neuropsychol. 2012;18(6):586-99. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.631906. Epub 2011 Nov 28.


Executive function (EF) refers to fundamental capacities that underlie more complex cognition and have ecological relevance across the individual's lifespan. However, emerging executive functions have rarely been studied in young preterm children (age 3) whose critical final stages of fetal development are interrupted by their early birth. We administered four novel touch-screen computerized measures of working memory and inhibition to 369 participants born between 2004 and 2006 (52 Extremely Low Birth Weight [ELBW]; 196 late preterm; 121 term-born). ELBW performed worse than term-born on simple and complex working memory and inhibition tasks and had the highest percentage of incomplete performance on a continuous performance test. The latter finding indicates developmental immaturity and the ELBW group's most at-risk preterm status. Additionally, late-preterm participants performed worse compared with term-born on measures of complex working memory but did not differ from those term-born on response inhibition measures. These results are consistent with a recent literature that identifies often subtle but detectable neurocognitive deficits in late-preterm children. Our results support the development and standardization of computerized touch-screen measures to assess EF subcomponent abilities during the formative preschool period. Such measures may be useful to monitor the developmental trajectory of critical executive function abilities in preterm children, and their use is necessary for timely recognition of deficit and application of appropriate interventional strategies.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child Development / physiology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gestational Age
  • Humans
  • Infant, Extremely Low Birth Weight / physiology
  • Infant, Extremely Low Birth Weight / psychology*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature / physiology
  • Infant, Premature / psychology*
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Pregnancy