TRI Conducts Research on Executive Function in Babies Born Low Birth Weight

TRI Conducts Research on Executive Function in Babies Born Low Birth Weight

Posted on February 2, 2015

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By Carol Dennis

TRI LogoThe Research Institute, in partnership with the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), has begun recruiting for a study on Executive Function in infants and toddlers born Low Birth Weight (LBW).

"It is so exciting to have cutting-edge research happening at TRI," says Dr. Ella Taylor, Director of TRI. "Since it was founded, more than 50 years ago, TRI has conducted research studies that have dramatically changed the face of education in America." For example, Dr. Edward Palmer's research on what holds the attention of pre-school children to television, that took place at TRI back in the 1960s and 70s, became the foundation for the Children's Television Workshop that created Sesame Street. “This new study on Executive Function in babies born Low Birth Weight has the potential to transform the field as Dr. Palmer's research did in education,” Dr. Taylor stated.

Dr. Patricia Blasco"Executive Function is the collection of mental processes in the brain that allows for self-regulation, working memory, attention, organization, and planning," explains TRI's Patricia Blasco, Ph.D., Principal Investigator on this study. “To date, there is no single comprehensive measure of executive functioning (EF) for children ages 6 months to three years,” Blasco continues. “We know that children born LBW are vulnerable to EF deficits because studies of EF in this population have been retrospective. That means the child is already school-age and experiencing learning difficulties. If EF strengths and deficits are identified earlier in life, interventions can be put in place to bolster skills and buffer deficits, leading to school readiness and success in day-to-day activities.”

Funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), the three-year study will follow infants and toddlers born LBW who do not have major medical conditions, and babies born full term without known delays. Children born LBW or pre-term will be recruited from OHSU Neonatal Intensive-Care Unit (NICU) and follow-up clinic, and from Salem Hospital. The full term children will be recruited in the central valley area of Oregon.

Project EF Logo

The study will examine whether traditional assessment methods that have components of EF in their structure can reveal early indicators of executive functioning. According to Dr. Sybille Guy, who will lead the research team at TRI, "The primary goal in Years 1 and 2 is to assess a sample of 100 children born LBW and preterm and 50 children who were full term. We will be administering a battery of standardized measures of infant and toddler development involving both caregiver report and individual assessment. In Year 3, the children will be assessed on these measures and a measure of executive function."

The hoped-for outcome of the study is a modified version of these standardized assessments that can identify EF strengths and deficits in babies born LBW early enough so that supports can be put in place to maximize development and enhance kindergarten readiness.

baby in NICU

In the peer-reviewed article, The Little Brain that Could: Understanding Executive Function in Early Childhood, (published in Young Exceptional Children - a journal of the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children), Blasco, Saxton, & Gerrie (2014), discuss the possibility that EF predictors can be observed in infants' and toddlers' play, and that interventions could be implemented in daily routines at home and in center-based programs. This study will be the next step in testing that question.

Read the article: The Little Engine that Could.

Close up of baby's face

The research team at TRI will work collaboratively with the clinical assessment team led by Dr. Sage Saxton at the Institute on Development and Disability at the Oregon Health & Sciences University. In addition, Dr. George Morgan, Professor Emertius from Colorado State University will serve as a consultant. Drs. Blasco and Saxton were recently cited in Dr. Morgan’s manual for Dimensions of Mastery Motivation (DMQ 18) which will be used in the study. “I have been familiar with George’s work since my doctoral days and it is so exciting to work with him - especially as we explore the relationship between mastery and executive function,” says Blasco.

“This is a dream come true for all of us,” Dr. Blasco continues. “I have been interested for many years in the development of children who are born early and the effects on brain development in terms of executive function. These findings will provide new scientific knowledge and a better understanding of EF skills and deficits in young children who are born LBW and preterm.”

Recruitment for the study began in January, 2015. Click here to learn how you can get involved.

OHSU IRB # 11290 - P.I.: Patricia M. Blasco, PhD

Project EF: Executive Function in Infants and Toddlers Born Low Birth Weight (LBW) and Preterm is funded for three years by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).


This grant work is exciting for the enormous potential it holds in understanding developmental interventions for children born early with very low birth weight. A major tenet of early intervention is to intervene as early as possible to ameliorate developmental problems and avoid cumulative risk. This study has profound implications for increasing a precision about what is needed and thus maximizes success in the lives of these children.

Posted Feb 5, 2015 by Carol Leitschuh, PhD

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