The case of late preterm birth: sliding forwards the critical window for cognitive outcome risk
Many survivors of preterm birth experience neurodevelopmental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, visual and hearing problems. However, even in the absence of major neurological complications, premature babies show significant neuropsychological and behavioural deficits during childhood and beyond. While the clinical tools routinely used to assess neurocognitive development in those infants have been useful in detecting major clinical complications in early infancy, they have not been equally sensitive in identifying subtle cognitive impairments emerging during childhood. These methodological concerns become even more relevant when considering the case of late preterm children (born between 34 and 36 gestational weeks). Although these children have been traditionally considered as having similar risks for developmental problems as neonates born at term, a recent line of research has provided growing evidence that even late preterm children display altered structural and functional brain maturation, with potential lifelong implications for neurocognitive functioning. A recent study by Heinonen put forward the hypothesis that environmental factors, in this case educational attainment, could moderate the association between late preterm birth (LPT) and neuropsychological impairments commonly associated with aging. In this paper we bring together clinical literature and recent neuroimaging evidence in order to provide two different but complementary approaches for a better understanding of the “nature-nurture” interplay underlying the lifespan neurocognitive development of preterm babies.