Prematurity affects about 13% of the US births and its public health consequences extend far beyond the newborn period. About half of children born preterm develop cognitive, language and learning problems that adversely impact their long-term outcomes. Once these children reach school age, educational programs are dictated by their level of function in academic domains, irrespective of the underlying pathogenesis of any learning difficulties. To improve outcomes, we must ascertain whether the learning problems of children born preterm (PT) have a similar cognitive profile, neural basis, and/or developmental course as learning problems in children born full term (FT). We must also investigate if PT children respond favorably to the same interventions known to be effective in educating FT children with learning disorders. We have forged an accomplished interdisciplinary team to focus on reading skills in PT children because of the pivotal role reading plays in education and long term outcomes.
The specific aims of this study are to (1) compare the cognitive profiles and neural basis of reading skills in PT and FT children using behavioral measures and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), an magnetic resonance imaging technique that evaluates cerebral white matter microstructure, (2) determine which behavioral or neural features predict persistent good or poor reading skills in both groups and (3) pilot test an intervention to improve reading skills n PT poor readers. We will enroll 6-year old kindergarten students (PT n=50 and FT n=50), test them on a battery of reading and cognitive measures, obtain DTIs, and follow them until age 8 years when we repeat an expanded battery and DTI. We hypothesize that the PT group will perform more poorly than the FT group. We will assess if the PT group has distinctive profiles of test performance or patterns of white matter microstructure compared to FT children equated for single word reading level. We will determine which behavioral and/or neural features are associated with persistent reading difficulties two years later. In Years 4 and 5 we will recruit another sample of PT children with reading scores below the 25th percentile for age. We will pilot test a 6-week summer tutoring program using two evidence-based curricula, one focused narrowly on phonemic awareness and one focused more broadly on other aspects, including reading comprehension. We will establish the feasibility and acceptability of the intervention for families and assess if the preterm children have the attentional capacity and endurance to work in small groups of 3 for 90 minutes 5 days/week for 6 weeks. This innovative study will make a sustained impact on understanding (1) reading outcomes in PT children, (2) the neural basis of normal and abnormal reading in both PT and FT children, and (3) neural plasticity, the ability of white matter to change over time and with educational interventions. It will position us to conduct a randomized clinical trial on reading intervention in children born preterm in the subsequent phase.
This research program is designed to improve academic outcomes for children born preterm, a large and growing population of children at high risk for significant learning disorders. The study will determine whether poor reading skills in children born preterm have distinctive cognitive and academic profiles and different neural characteristics than poor reading skills in full-term children. We will also determine which factor at kindergarten predict those children who are likely to have long-term reading problems in each group so that the appropriate group can be targeted for early intensive reading interventions. In preparation for a randomized clinical trial of treatments, the studies will also pilot-test two interventions currently used for full term poor readers in terms of feasibility, acceptability for families, and appropriateness for the preterm poor readers.
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