Objective: Cognitive deficits have been inconsistently described for late or moderately preterm children but are consistently found in very preterm children. This study investigates the association between cognitive workload demands of tasks and cognitive performance in relation to gestational age at birth.
Methods: Data were collected as part of a prospective geographically defined whole-population study of neonatal at-risk children in Southern Bavaria. At 8;5 years, n = 1326 children (gestation range: 23-41 weeks) were assessed with the K-ABC and a Mathematics Test.
Results: Cognitive scores of preterm children decreased as cognitive workload demands of tasks increased. The relationship between gestation and task workload was curvilinear and more pronounced the higher the cognitive workload: GA² (quadratic term) on low cognitive workload: R² = .02, p<0.001; moderate cognitive workload: R² = .09, p<0.001; and high cognitive workload tasks: R² = .14, p<0.001. Specifically, disproportionally lower scores were found for very (<32 weeks gestation) and moderately (32-33 weeks gestation) preterm children the higher the cognitive workload of the tasks. Early biological factors such as gestation and neonatal complications explained more of the variance in high (12.5%) compared with moderate (8.1%) and low cognitive workload tasks (1.7%).
Conclusions: The cognitive workload model may help to explain variations of findings on the relationship of gestational age with cognitive performance in the literature. The findings have implications for routine cognitive follow-up, educational intervention, and basic research into neuro-plasticity and brain reorganization after preterm birth.