MRI of normal fetal brain development

Eur J Radiol. 2006 Feb;57(2):199-216. doi: 10.1016/j.ejrad.2005.11.020. Epub 2006 Jan 4.


Normal fetal brain maturation can be studied by in vivo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) from the 18th gestational week (GW) to term, and relies primarily on T2-weighted and diffusion-weighted (DW) sequences. These maturational changes must be interpreted with a knowledge of the histological background and the temporal course of the respective developmental steps. In addition, MR presentation of developing and transient structures must be considered. Signal changes associated with maturational processes can mainly be ascribed to the following changes in tissue composition and organization, which occur at the histological level: (1) a decrease in water content and increasing cell-density can be recognized as a shortening of T1- and T2-relaxation times, leading to increased T1-weighted and decreased T2-weighted intensity, respectively; (2) the arrangement of microanatomical structures to create a symmetrical or asymmetrical environment, leading to structural differences that may be demonstrated by DW-anisotropy; (3) changes in non-structural qualities, such as the onset of a membrane potential in premyelinating axons. The latter process also influences the appearance of a structure on DW sequences. Thus, we will review the in vivo MR appearance of different maturational states of the fetal brain and relate these maturational states to anatomical, histological, and in vitro MRI data. Then, the development of the cerebral cortex, white matter, temporal lobe, and cerebellum will be reviewed, and the MR appearance of transient structures of the fetal brain will be shown. Emphasis will be placed on the appearance of the different structures with the various sequences. In addition, the possible utility of dynamic fetal sequences in assessing spontaneous fetal movements is discussed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / embryology*
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Fetus / embryology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Pregnancy