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Very preterm birth (VPT; < 33 weeks of gestation) is associated with an increased risk of learning disability, which contributes to more VPT-born children repeating grades and underachieving in school. Learning problems associated with VPT birth may be caused by pathophysiological alterations in neurodevelopment resulting from perinatal brain insult; however, adaptive neuroplastic processes may subsequently occur in the developing preterm brain which ameliorate, to an extent, the potential sequelae of altered neurophysiology. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare neuronal activation in 24 VPT individuals and 22 controls (CT) in young adulthood during a learning task consisting of the encoding and subsequent recognition of repeated visual paired associates. Structural MRI data were also collected and analysed in order to explore possible structure-function associations. Whilst the two groups did not differ in their learning ability, as demonstrated by their capacity to recognize previously-seen and previously-unseen visual pairs, between-group differences in linear patterns of Blood Oxygenation Level Dependant (BOLD) activity were observed across the four repeated blocks of the task for both the encoding and recognition conditions, suggesting that the way learning takes place differs between the two groups. During encoding, significant between-group differences in patterns of BOLD activity were seen in clusters centred on the cerebellum, the anterior cingulate gyrus, the midbrain/substantia nigra, medial temporal (including parahippocampal) gyrus and inferior and superior frontal gyri. During the recognition condition, significant between-group differences in patterns of BOLD activity were seen in clusters centred on the claustrum and the posterior cerebellum. Structural analysis revealed smaller grey matter volume in right middle temporal gyrus in VPT individuals compared to controls, however volume in this region was not significantly associated with functional activation. These results demonstrate that although cognitive task performance between VPT individuals and controls may be comparable on certain measures, differences in BOLD signal may also be evident, some of which could represent compensatory neural processes following VPT-related brain insult.

Original publication




Journal article


Neuroimage Clin

Publication Date





54 - 63


Learning disability, Neuroplasticity, Very preterm birth, Visual paired associates, fMRI, Adaptation, Physiological, Association Learning, Brain, Female, Follow-Up Studies, Humans, Infant, Newborn, Infant, Very Low Birth Weight, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Photic Stimulation, Premature Birth, Young Adult