Effects of gestational age at birth on cognitive performance: a function of cognitive workload demands

PLoS One. 2013 May 24;8(5):e65219. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065219. Print 2013.


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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Female
  • Gestational Age*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Pregnancy
  • Prospective Studies
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Task Performance and Analysis

Grant support

This study was supported by grants PKE24, JUG14, 01EP9504 and 01ER0801 from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Science (BMBF) and by grant JA 1913 from the German Research Foundation (DFG). The contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official view of the BMBF or the DFG. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.