Individuals born very preterm (VPT; <32 weeks' gestational age) are at increased risk of impaired mathematics and word reading performance, as well as widespread white matter microstructural alterations compared with individuals born full term (FT; ≥37 weeks' gestational age). To date, the link between academic performance and white matter microstructure is not well understood. This study aimed to investigate the associations between mathematics and reading performance with white matter microstructure in 114 VPT and 36 FT 13-year-old children. Additionally, we aimed to investigate whether the association of mathematics and reading performance with white matter microstructure in VPT children varied as a function of impairment. To do this, we used diffusion tensor imaging and advanced diffusion modelling techniques (Neurite Orientation Dispersion and Density Imaging and the Spherical Mean Technique), combined with a whole-brain analysis approach (Tract-Based Spatial Statistics). Mathematics performance across VPT and FT groups was positively associated with white matter microstructural measurements of fractional anisotropy and neurite density, and negatively associated with radial and mean diffusivities in widespread, bilateral regions. Furthermore, VPT children with a mathematics impairment (>1 standard deviation below FT mean) had significantly reduced neurite density compared with VPT children without an impairment. Reading performance was not significantly associated with any of the white matter microstructure parameters. Additionally, the associations between white matter microstructure and mathematics and reading performance did not differ significantly between VPT and FT groups. Our findings suggest that alterations in white matter microstructure, and more specifically lower neurite density, are associated with poorer mathematics performance in 13-year-old VPT and FT children. More research is required to understand the association between reading performance and white matter microstructure in 13-year-old children.
Keywords: Academic performance; Diffusion imaging; Prematurity; Very preterm; White matter.
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