Very Low Birth Weight Infants as Young Adults - Focus on aspects of cognition, behavior and sleep
Major advances in the treatment of preterm infants have occurred during the last three decades. Survival rates have increased, and the first generations of preterm infants born at very low birth weight (VLBW; less than 1500 g) who profited from modern neonatal intensive care are now in young adulthood. The literature shows that VLBW children achieve on average lower scores on cognitive tests, even after exclusion of individuals with obvious neurosensory deficits. Evidence also exists for an increased risk in VLBW children for various neuropsychiatric disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related behavioral symptoms. Up till now, studies extending into adulthood are sparse, and it remains to be seen whether these problems persist into adulthood. The aim of this thesis was to study ADHD-related symptoms and cognitive and executive functioning in young adults born at VLBW. In addition, we aimed to study sleep disturbances, known to adversely affect both cognition and attention. We hypothesized that preterm birth at VLBW interferes with early brain development in a way that alters the neuropsychological phenotype; this may manifest itself as ADHD symptoms and impaired cognitive abilities in young adulthood.
In this cohort study from a geographically defined region, we studied 166 VLBW adults and 172 term-born controls born from 1978 through 1985. At ages 18 to 27 years, the study participants took part in a clinic study during which their physical and psychological health was assessed in detail. Three years later, 213 of these individuals participated in a follow-up. The current study is part of a larger research project (The Helsinki Study of Very Low Birth Weight Adults), and the measurements of interest for this particular study include the following: 1) The Adult Problem Questionnaire (APQ), a self-rating scale of ADHD-related symptoms in adults; 2) A computerized cognitive test battery designed for population studies (CogState®) which measures core cognitive abilities such as reaction time, working memory, and visual learning; 3) Sleep assessment by actigraphy, the Basic Nordic Sleep Questionnaire, and the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire. Actigraphs are wrist-worn accelerometers that separate sleep from wakefulness by registering body movements.
Contrary to expectations, VLBW adults as a group reported no more ADHD-related behavioral symptoms than did controls. Further subdivision of the VLBW group into SGA (small for gestational age) and AGA (appropriate for gestational age) subgroups, however, revealed more symptoms on ADHD subscales pertaining to executive dysfunction and emotional instability among those born SGA. Thus, it seems that intrauterine growth retardation (for which SGA served as a proxy) is a more essential predictor for self-perceived ADHD symptoms in adulthood than is VLBW birth as such. In line with observations from other cohorts, the VLBW adults reported less risk-taking behavior in terms of substance use (alcohol, smoking, and recreational drugs), a finding reassuring for the VLBW individuals and their families.
On the cognitive test, VLBW adults free from neurosensory deficits had longer reaction times than did term-born peers on all tasks included in the test battery, and lower accuracy on the learning task, with no discernible effect of SGA status over and above the effect of VLBW. Altogether, on a group level, even high-functioning VLBW adults show subtle deficits in psychomotor processing speed, visual working memory, and learning abilities.
The sleep studies provided no evidence for differences in sleep quality or duration between the two groups. The VLBW adults were, however, at more than two-fold higher risk for sleep-disordered breathing (in terms of chronic snoring). Given the link between sleep-disordered breathing and health sequelae, these results suggest that VLBW individuals may benefit from an increased awareness among clinicians of this potential problem area. An unexpected finding from the sleep studies was the suggestion of an advanced sleep phase: The VLBW adults went to bed earlier according to the actigraphy registrations and also reported earlier wake-up times on the questionnaire. In further study of this issue in conjunction with the follow-up three years later, the VLBW group reported higher levels of morningness propensity, further corroborating the preliminary findings of an advanced sleep phase. Although the clinical implications are not entirely clear, the issue may be worth further study, since circadian rhythms are closely related to health and well-being.
In sum, we believe that increased understanding of long-term outcomes after VLBW, and identification of areas and subgroups that are particularly vulnerable, will allow earlier recognition of potential problems and ultimately lead to improved prevention strategies.
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