The average length of human gestation is 40 weeks, in the instance where the child is born before that it is considered a premature birth. Most infants who are born prematurely have a very high rate of survival, but can suffer through issues in physical and mental development. Normal brain development occurs when the surface area of the brain grows at a faster rate than the volume of the brain. This extra growth appears to be necessary for the brain to make all the connections it needs (Kapellou, et al., 2006). The rate of growth is proportional to cognitive development. In some cases of prematurity the brains surface area grows at a much slower rate than normal. The extent of this rate influences the amount of developmental disturbance, the shorter the gestational length the more disruption.
Executive Functions (EF) are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior. These include the ability to use the working memory, being able to come up with different solutions to a problem (fluency), planning and impulse control. Research continues to support the idea that preterm birth has major effects on EF. The few available studies have shown that very preterm children’s poor impulse control and working memory skills are related to academic underperformance and inattentive behavior (Aarnoudse-Moens, Weisglas-Kuperus, Duivenvoorden, Goudoever, & Oosterlaan, 2013). Academic underperformance could be caused by slow processing speed, which is a result of abnormalities of white matter, which is seen in premature babies. Damage to the white matter of the brain lead to inconsistent speed and differences in academic and behavioral performance.
Cognitive utilization increases with the difficulty of a task, to maintain well performance. In premature children there is damage to the cortical areas of the brain, which are specialized for certain cognitive tasks. With increasing cognitive workload of a task more resources are needed and thus more cortical areas (i.e. large scale cortical networks) are recruited (Jaekel, Baumann, & Wolke, 2013). With damage to these cortical areas it is proportional to defects in the childs performance of cognitive workload of these tasks.
If I was to conduct an experiment, I would want to see how much of this research would fit and make sense with the data that I would collect. Based on the articles and research I have learned from my hypothesis would state, If a child is born less than 30 weeks of gestational age then, they will face a form of disruption in their cognitive and/or behavior development. My independent variable would be the gestational age of the participant and the dependent variable would be the cognitive and behavior abilities of the child.
To be accepted into the experiment, participants must be preemies born with less than 30 weeks of gestational age and have been in the NICU for over 10 days. If a preemie is sent home after being in the NICU for less than 10 days, it is more than likely they will suffer no disruptions in their development. Female and Male participants in lower, middle or high class will be accepted. This will help us see if gender or SES has an effect in development. Participants will be recruited from a general area of eastern United States. There will be an approximate amount of 100 participants. To be recruited into the experiment, we will be given consent from the parentals of the participants for multiple testing and scanning from prenatal to age 8. The incentive will be traveling, testing and scanning expenses covered. Therapy will be provided for the parents and participants if and when needed. Speech, physical and occupational therapy will be included for the child.
For the experiment, it will be a record of all testing and scanning taken between birth and the age of 8. At birth, we will record the Apgar score of the baby. This test will check the babies heart rate, muscle tone and other signs that tell us if extra medical care or emergency service is needed. An MRI will be taken to determine which premature babies have suffered any brain injury that will affect their development. We will continue to monitor the preemies development until they are stable enough to go home. Once they are at the age of 1, we will do another MRI scan, to test if any disturbance in brain development is indicated. We will repeat this again at the age of 5. At the age of 8 is when most disturbance of cognitive capability is seen as they are in the middle of their elementary school years and their academic performance is tested. At this age we will conduct the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) test, which will tell us the students cognitive strengths and weaknesses. This will be the end of the testing and when we are able to make prognosis for the child.
The graph below shows the predicted data I would have received if I were to complete this experiment. The data shows how gestational age and the WISC score is directly proportional, as gestational age increases the WISC score increases as well. Gestational age is our independent variable as stated before. The WISC score acts as our dependent variable, which is the cognitive ability of the child. The WISC test is a measurement of human intelligence and capability. The score on this test, shows how the child will perform in academics, the lower the score the lower the performance. This explains how the earlier the preemie the more difficulty they are going to face in school and thinking skills. Our independent variable affects the dependent variable in a proportional way, when one increases as does the other.
The results of this experiment show that the more preemie a child is the more difficulties they will face in academic performance as well as behavioral. Around 22 weeks of gestational age, the child will have a below average score. This does not mean that they will be fully incapable of performing any cognitive skill, it will just be much more difficult for them and they might not be able to ever perform as well as other children. Around 28-30 weeks of gestational age we see a score that is quite average. This means that the preemie will not have to worry as much in academics. Their experience will be easier than those who were born much earlier. This supports my hypothesis as I stated that the more preemie a child the lower cognitive ability they will have. This outcome makes sense based on previous research from the articles I have read. When the brain is developing the surface area grows at a much higher rate than the volume. In cases of supreme prematurity, it happens in the opposite way. When there is more volume of the brain than surface area the child will have less cognitive ability. However, ever case of a preemie is different. Two preemies both born at the same gestational age can have different academic performances. This is due to confounds. One confounding variable is gender. Based on the research I read males are more likely to be affected by prematurity than females. Another one would be the fact that everyone is at different academic levels no matter the gestational age. In school, some people are more gifted than others even when they both are considered full-term children. Although the research supports the idea that the less gestational age the more issues, every case is different. I would love to see more research being done on preemies under the gestational age of 30 weeks, who grow up to have no academic issues. I was born prematurely at around 30 weeks. Although I have struggled medically, academically I test and perform as a gifted student. I would like more research and studies to support the idea that every preemie case is different and although most information concludes that preemies link to lower academic performance, that is not true in a lot of other cases.
In conclusion, through studied research I can predict that if this experiment would take place, a majority of the preemies would follow the studies and data. A premature baby has a high survival rate, but will most likely face academic, behavioral and/or physical complications. Supreme cases of prematurity will lead to higher disruption in brain development. Tests and scans can help predict how a child will perform in their later years. Overall, every preemie is a different case and can experience a different life.