Magnetic resonance diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) enables the discrimination of white matter pathways before myelination is evident histologically or on conventional MRI. In this investigation, 14 premature neonates with no evidence of white matter abnormalities by conventional MRI were studied with DTI. A custom MR-compatible incubator with a novel high sensitivity neonatal head coil and improved acquisition and processing techniques were employed to increase image quality and spatial resolution. The technical improvements enabled tract-specific quantitative characterization of maturing white matter, including several association tracts and subcortical projection tracts not previously investigated in neonates by MR. Significant differences were identified between white matter pathways, with earlier maturing commissural tracts of the corpus callosum, and deep projection tracts of the cerebral peduncle and internal capsule exhibiting lower mean diffusivity (Dav) and higher fractional anisotropy (FA) than later maturing subcortical projection and association pathways. Maturational changes in white matter tracts included reductions in Dav and increases in FA with age due primarily to decreases in the two minor diffusion eigenvalues (lambda2 and lambda3). This work contributes to the understanding of normal white matter development in the preterm neonatal brain, an important step toward the use of DTI for the improved evaluation and treatment of white matter injury of prematurity.
Copyright 2004 Elsevier Inc.