Preterm birth is associated with an increased risk for lasting changes in both the cortico-thalamic system and attention; however, the link between cortico-thalamic and attention changes is as yet little understood. In preterm newborns, cortico-cortical and cortico-thalamic structural connectivity are distinctively altered, with increased local clustering for cortico-cortical and decreased integrity for cortico-thalamic connectivity. In preterm-born adults, among the various attention functions, visual short-term memory (vSTM) capacity is selectively impaired. We hypothesized distinct associations between vSTM capacity and the structural integrity of cortico-thalamic and cortico-cortical connections, respectively, in preterm-born adults. A whole-report paradigm of briefly presented letter arrays based on the computationally formalized Theory of Visual Attention (TVA) was used to quantify parameter vSTM capacity in 26 preterm- and 21 full-term-born adults. Fractional anisotropy (FA) of posterior thalamic radiations and the splenium of the corpus callosum obtained by diffusion tensor imaging were analyzed by tract-based spatial statistics and used as proxies for cortico-thalamic and cortico-cortical structural connectivity. The relationship between vSTM capacity and cortico-thalamic and cortico-cortical connectivity, respectively, was significantly modified by prematurity. In full-term-born adults, the higher FA in the right posterior thalamic radiation the higher vSTM capacity; in preterm-born adults this FA-vSTM-relationship was inversed. In the splenium, higher FA was correlated with higher vSTM capacity in preterm-born adults, whereas no significant relationship was evident in full-term-born adults. These results indicate distinct associations between cortico-thalamic and cortico-cortical integrity and vSTM capacity in preterm-and full-term-born adults. Data suggest compensatory cortico-cortical fiber re-organization for attention deficits after preterm delivery.
Keywords: Compensation; Diffusion tensor imaging; Posterior thalamic radiation; Preterm birth; Theory of Visual Attention; Visual short-term memory capacity.
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