The interrelatedness of cognitive abilities in very preterm and full-term born children at 5.5 years of age: a psychometric network analysis approach

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2024 Jan;65(1):18-30. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13816. Epub 2023 May 11.


Background: Very preterm (VP) birth is associated with a considerable risk for cognitive impairment, putting children at a disadvantage in academic and everyday life. Despite lower cognitive ability on the group level, there are large individual differences among VP born children. Contemporary theories define intelligence as a network of reciprocally connected cognitive abilities. Therefore, intelligence was studied as a network of interrelated abilities to provide insight into interindividual differences. We described and compared the network of cognitive abilities, including strength of interrelations between and the relative importance of abilities, of VP and full-term (FT) born children and VP children with below-average and average-high intelligence at 5.5 years.

Methods: A total of 2,253 VP children from the EPIPAGE-2 cohort and 578 FT controls who participated in the 5.5-year-follow-up were eligible for inclusion. The WPPSI-IV was used to measure verbal comprehension, visuospatial abilities, fluid reasoning, working memory, and processing speed. Psychometric network analysis was applied to analyse the data.

Results: Cognitive abilities were densely and positively interconnected in all networks, but the strength of connections differed between networks. The cognitive network of VP children was more strongly interconnected than that of FT children. Furthermore, VP children with below average IQ had a more strongly connected network than VP children with average-high IQ. Contrary to our expectations, working memory had the least central role in all networks.

Conclusions: In line with the ability differentiation hypothesis, children with higher levels of cognitive ability had a less interconnected and more specialised cognitive structure. Composite intelligence scores may therefore mask domain-specific deficits, particularly in children at risk for cognitive impairments (e.g., VP born children), even when general intelligence is unimpaired. In children with strongly and densely connected networks, domain-specific deficits may have a larger overall impact, resulting in lower intelligence levels.

Keywords: Preterm birth; cognition; intelligence; psychometric network analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Cognition
  • Cognitive Dysfunction*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Extremely Premature* / psychology
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Intelligence
  • Psychometrics