Background Advances in neonatal intensive care have improved the survival rate of preterm babies. However, despite the increased survival rate of these babies, the risk for cognitive and behavioural problems at school age has increased. These problems are often attributable to specific attentional deficits. The early detection of attentional problems is therefore a challenging but important endeavour for clinicians.
Objective The investigation of attentional functioning in all its subcomponents in preterms children at preschool age.
Methods Preterm (N = 56) and full-term neonates (N = 56) between 5;5 and 6;11 years (average 5;7), matched for age, were assessed for the following attentional components: alertness, sustained attention, processing speed, orienting, perception, focused attention, go/nogo, distractibility, divided attention and flexibility. Each construct was assessed through subtests of the following neuropsychological batteries: KITAP/TAP and HAWIK-IV. Further factors such as parental ratings and descriptive item-based evaluation of the child’s behaviour during the neuropsychological assessment were also considered.
Result Preterms show poor attentional performance in sustained attention, focused attention and distractibility, as well as reduction of processing speed in a visual search task, divided attention and flexibility. Decrease of volitional attention compared to automatic attention was also identified. No problems were detected in alertness and inhibition (go/nogo). Additionally, a higher rate of test-aborts, decreased motivation, and poor parental ratings were detected among the preterm population.
Conclusion The neuropsychological results highlight the difference of attentional functioning between preterm and full-term neonates and permit an early detection of attention deficits.