Background: Sleep problems occur in up to 30% of children and have been associated with adverse developmental outcomes. However, due to a lack of longitudinal neuroimaging studies, the neurobiological changes that may underlie some of these associations have remained unclear. This study explored the association between sleep problems during childhood and white matter (WM) microstructure in preadolescence. Methods: Children from the population-based birth cohort, the Generation R Study, who had repeatedly assessed sleep problems between 1.5 and 10 years of age and a MRI scan at age 10 (N = 2,449), were included. Mothers reported on their child's sleep problems using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL 1.5–5) when children were 1.5, 3, and 6 years of age. At age 2, mothers completed very similar questions. At age 10, both children and their mothers reported on sleep problems. We used whole-brain and tract-specific fractional anisotropy (FA) and mean diffusivity (MD) values obtained through diffusion tensor imaging as measures of WM microstructure. Results: Childhood sleep problems at 1.5, 2, and 6 years of age were associated with less WM microstructural integrity (approximately 0.05 SD lower global FA score per 1-SD sleep problems). In repeated-measures analyses, children with more sleep problems (per 1-SD) at baseline had lower FA values at age 10 in particular in the corticospinal tract (−0.12 SD, 95% CI:-0.20;-0.05), the uncinate fasciculus (−0.12 SD, 95% CI:−0.19;−0.05), and the forceps major (-0.11 SD, 95% CI:−0.18;−0.03), although effect estimates across the tracts did not differ substantially. Conclusions: Childhood sleep disturbances are associated with less WM microstructural integrity in preadolescence. Our results show that early neurodevelopment may be a period of particular vulnerability to sleep problems. This study cannot demonstrate causality but suggests that preventive interventions addressing sleep problems should be further explored to test whether they impact adverse neurodevelopment.

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Keywords DTI, repeated measurements, Sleep problems, white matter microstructure
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Series VSNU Open Access deal
Journal Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
Mulder, T.A. (Tessa A.), Kocevska, D, Muetzel, R.L, Koopman-Verhoeff, M.E. (Maria Elisabeth), Hillegers, M.H.J, White, T.J.H, & Tiemeier, H.W. (2019). Childhood sleep disturbances and white matter microstructure in preadolescence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. doi:10.1111/jcpp.13085