Few large-scale studies have been done to characterize the normal human brain white matter growth in the first years of life. We investigated white matter maturation patterns in major fiber pathways in a large cohort of healthy young children from birth to age two using diffusion parameters fractional anisotropy (FA), radial diffusivity (RD) and axial diffusivity (RD). Ten fiber pathways, including commissural, association and projection tracts, were examined with tract-based analysis, providing more detailed and continuous spatial developmental patterns compared to conventional ROI based methods. All DTI data sets were transformed to a population specific atlas with a group-wise longitudinal large deformation diffeomorphic registration approach. Diffusion measurements were analyzed along the major fiber tracts obtained in the atlas space. All fiber bundles show increasing FA values and decreasing radial and axial diffusivities during development in the first 2years of life. The changing rates of the diffusion indices are faster in the first year than the second year for all tracts. RD and FA show larger percentage changes in the first and second years than AD. The gender effects on the diffusion measures are small. Along different spatial locations of fiber tracts, maturation does not always follow the same speed. Temporal and spatial diffusion changes near cortical regions are in general smaller than changes in central regions. Overall developmental patterns revealed in our study confirm the general rules of white matter maturation. This work shows a promising framework to study and analyze white matter maturation in a tract-based fashion. Compared to most previous studies that are ROI-based, our approach has the potential to discover localized development patterns associated with fiber tracts of interest.
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