Rationale: Histologic data from fatal cases suggest that extreme prematurity results in persisting alveolar damage. However, there is new evidence that human alveolarization might continue throughout childhood and could contribute to alveolar repair.
Objectives: To examine whether alveolar damage in extreme-preterm survivors persists into late childhood, we compared alveolar dimensions between schoolchildren born term and preterm, using hyperpolarized helium-3 magnetic resonance.
Methods: We recruited schoolchildren aged 10-14 years stratified by gestational age at birth (weeks) to four groups: (1) term-born (37-42 wk; n = 61); (2) mild preterm (32-36 wk; n = 21); (3) extreme preterm (<32 wk, not oxygen dependent at 4 wk; n = 19); and (4) extreme preterm with chronic lung disease (<32 wk and oxygen dependent beyond 4 wk; n = 18). We measured lung function using spirometry and plethysmography. Apparent diffusion coefficient, a surrogate for average alveolar dimensions, was measured by helium-3 magnetic resonance.
Measurements and main results: The two extreme preterm groups had a lower FEV1 (P = 0.017) compared with term-born and mild preterm children. Apparent diffusion coefficient was 0.092 cm(2)/second (95% confidence interval, 0.089-0.095) in the term group. Corresponding values were 0.096 (0.091-0.101), 0.090 (0085-0.095), and 0.089 (0.083-0.094) in the mild preterm and two extreme preterm groups, respectively, implying comparable alveolar dimensions across all groups. Results did not change after controlling for anthropometric variables and potential confounders.
Conclusions: Alveolar size at school age was similar in survivors of extreme prematurity and term-born children. Because extreme preterm birth is associated with deranged alveolar structure in infancy, the most likely explanation for our finding is catch-up alveolarization.