Background: We postulated that during ontogenesis cortical surface area and cerebral volume are related by a scaling law whose exponent gives a quantitative measure of cortical development. We used this approach to investigate the hypothesis that premature termination of the intrauterine environment by preterm birth reduces cortical development in a dose-dependent manner, providing a neural substrate for functional impairment.
Methods and findings: We analyzed 274 magnetic resonance images that recorded brain growth from 23 to 48 wk of gestation in 113 extremely preterm infants born at 22 to 29 wk of gestation, 63 of whom underwent neurodevelopmental assessment at a median age of 2 y. Cortical surface area was related to cerebral volume by a scaling law with an exponent of 1.29 (95% confidence interval, 1.25-1.33), which was proportional to later neurodevelopmental impairment. Increasing prematurity and male gender were associated with a lower scaling exponent (p < 0.0001) independent of intrauterine or postnatal somatic growth.
Conclusions: Human brain growth obeys an allometric scaling relation that is disrupted by preterm birth in a dose-dependent, sexually dimorphic fashion that directly parallels the incidence of neurodevelopmental impairments in preterm infants. This result focuses attention on brain growth and cortical development during the weeks following preterm delivery as a neural substrate for neurodevelopmental impairment after premature delivery.