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Preterm Birth is Associated with Atypical Social Cognition in Infancy

Presented at the Neonatal Society 2015 Spring Meeting.

Moore EJ1, Gillespie-Smith K2, Fletcher-Watson S3, Boardman JP1,3

1 MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, University of Edinburgh, UK
2 Psychology, University of West of Scotland, UK
3 Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, University of Edinburgh, UK

Background: Preterm infants are at increased risk of developing neurocognitive and psychiatric impairment in childhood (1,2). Early identification of children at risk could facilitate early interventions designed to improve outcome. Eye-tracking is a technique that can objectively and quantifiably assess eye-gaze behaviour in response to stimuli in non-verbal populations and allows inferences to be made about underlying cognitive function (3). Here we test the hypothesis that social cognition in infancy is altered by preterm birth.

Methods: 43 preterm infants (mean postmenstrual age [PMA] birth 29+3, range 23+2-34+6; 17 males) and 42 term infants (≥ 37 weeks PMA, 21 males) were assessed between 6 and 18 months corrected PMA using the Tobii x60 eye-tracker. Infants were presented with stimuli of increasing complexity: static face, face with objects within a grid-like array and pairs of naturalistic scenes with and without social content. Time to first fixation, fixation duration and location of fixation were recorded and analysed using Student’s t-tests, repeated measures ANOVA, and non-parametric tests as required. Informed parental consent and ethical approval were obtained.

Results: There was no significant difference in age at testing between groups; 8.77 months (preterm) and 8.48 months (term), p= 0.581. Preterm infants demonstrated a reduced preference to social information when compared to term infants as demonstrated by a difference score of fixation duration (eyes- mouth) within the face, p= 0.045 (figure 1). This pattern was repeated in more complex tasks in fixation duration; grid-like array (median fixation duration to face 1.16 vs. 1.3s, p=0.023); naturalistic scene (mean fixation of social content 1.1 vs. 1.4s and non-social content 0.79 vs. 0.72s, p=0.026).

Preterm Birth is Associated with Atypical Social Cognition in Infancy

Conclusion: Eye-gaze behaviours in response to stimuli depicting social content of varying complexity differ between preterm infants and term controls, when assessed in late infancy. These data suggest that the development of social cognition is altered by preterm birth.

Corresponding author: emma.moore@ed.ac.uk

1. Bhutta AT et al JAMA 2002
2. Johnson S et al JAACAP 2010
3. Jones W, Klin A. Nature. 2013

Funding: Theirworld

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