Being born too early can do lasting damage. A team reports that many 12-year-olds who were born prematurely with a very low birth weight have lower IQs and more developmental problems than similarly aged children who were born at term.

Dr. Betty R. Vohr of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and colleagues compared outcomes of 375 children with birth weights between 600 and 1250 grams born between 1989 and 1992 with 111 age-matched full-term "control" children.

The preterm group had an average full-scale IQ of 88, a verbal IQ of 91 and a performance IQ of 87, the researchers report in the medical journal Pediatrics. On average, the "preemies" had scores 12 to 14 points lower than the comparison group.

On a standard test of basic language skills, 22-24 percent of preterm children scored in the abnormal range compared with 2-4 percent of controls.

The damage was worse when premature babies had bleeding in the brain when they were born. When these infants reached 12 years of age, 76 percent of them required school support services; that compared with 44 percent of preterm children without brain injury, and 16 percent of controls.

In addition, preterm children exhibited more behavior problems than their full-term counterparts, the investigators found.

"Although our findings pertain to a group of children born more than 15 years ago, trends over time suggest that the gap in neuropsychological skills between preterm and term children has remained relatively constant," Vohr and her colleagues note.

They conclude, "These findings indicate that extended efforts to prevent serious brain injury in preterm infants are needed."