In utero tractography of fetal white matter development

Neuroimage. 2008 Nov 1;43(2):213-24. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.07.026. Epub 2008 Jul 23.


Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and tractography are noninvasive tools that enable the study of three-dimensional diffusion characteristics and their molecular, cellular, and microstructural correlates in the human brain. To date, these techniques have mainly been limited to postnatal MR studies of premature infants and newborns. The primary aim of this cross-sectional study was to assess the potential of in utero DTI and tractography to visualize the main projection and commissural pathways in 40 living, non-sedated human fetuses between 18 and 37 gestational weeks (GW) of age, with no structural brain pathologies. During a mean time of 1 min and 49 s, an axial, single-shot, echo planar DT sequence, with 32 diffusion gradient encoding directions and a reconstructed voxel size of 1.44 mm/1.45 mm/4.5 mm, was acquired. Most (90%) of the fetuses were imaged in the cephalic presentation. In 40% of examined fetuses, DTI measurements were robust enough to successfully calculate and visualize bilateral, craniocaudally oriented (mainly sensorimotor), and callosal trajectories in utero. Furthermore, fiber lengths, ADC, FA, and eigenvalues (lambda(1), lambda(2) and lambda(3)) were determined at different anatomically defined areas. FA values and the axial eigenvalue (lambda(1)) showed a characteristic distribution, with the highest values for the splenium, followed by the genu, the right, and the left posterior limb of the internal capsule. The right-sided sensorimotor trajectories were found to be significantly longer than on the left side (p=0.007), reflecting higher right-sided lambda(1) values (14 cases vs. 9 cases). Based on the good correlation of these initial in utero tractography results with prior documented postmortem and ex utero DTI data, this new imaging technique promises new insights into the normal and pathological development of the unborn child.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / embryology*
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Female
  • Fetal Development*
  • Fetus / anatomy & histology*
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Male
  • Nerve Fibers, Myelinated / ultrastructure*