Individual differences in neonatal white matter are associated with executive function at 3 years of age

  • Sarah J. ShortEmail author
  • Michael T. Willoughby
  • Marie Camerota
  • Rebecca L. Stephens
  • Rachel J. Steiner
  • Martin Styner
  • John H. Gilmore
Original Article


The development of executive function (EF) in early childhood contributes to social and academic aspects of school readiness and facilitates emerging self-regulatory competence. Numerous efforts are underway to identify aspects of early brain development that contribute to emerging EF. Existing research supports the importance of multiple white matter tracts for EF in older children and adults. However, this research has not been extended to young children. In this study, we consider neonatal white matter microstructure in relation to children’s performance on a battery of EF tasks three years later. We obtained diffusion tensor imaging data from a sample of neonates (N = 27) shortly after birth. At 3 years of age, children completed a computerized battery of EF tasks. The primary data analyses involved regression models estimated for each white matter tract. Multiple demographic and measure-related covariates were included in each model. A follow-up analysis of tracts determined to be associated with EF examined individual data points along those fibers. Among the white matter tracts analyzed, the cingulum was significantly associated with EF at 3 years of age. Specifically, lower axial diffusivity values along the cingulum were associated with increased performance on the EF battery. Results are discussed as providing initial evidence that individual differences in neonatal brain structure may facilitate the acquisition of EF abilities in early childhood. These findings are consistent with previous research that supports the value of the cingulum for higher-order cognitive abilities. Cautions and implications of these results are considered.


Infant brain development Diffusion tensor imaging Executive function Early childhood White matter Cognitive development 



The collection and processing of neuroimaging data for this project were supported with Grants from National Institutes of Mental Health: K01MH099411 (Short, PI) and MH064065, MH 070890 (Gilmore, PI), and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development HD053000 (Gilmore, PI), HD079124. The collection of executive function data for this project was supported by Institute of Educational Sciences grant R324A120033 (Willoughby, PI). Dr. Stephens was supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health training Grant T32-MH10644. The views expressed in this manuscript are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of listed funding agencies.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 16 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 25 kb)
429_2019_1955_MOESM3_ESM.jpg (58 kb)
Supplementary material 3 (JPEG 58 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Healthy Minds and the Department of Educational PsychologyUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA
  2. 2.RTI InternationalResearch Triangle ParkUSA
  3. 3.Center for Developmental ScienceUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillUSA
  5. 5.Department of Computer ScienceUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillUSA

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