The thalamus is a deep gray matter structure and consists of axonal fibers projecting to the entire cortex, which provide the anatomical support for its sensorimotor and higher-level cognitive functions. There is limited in vivo evidence on the normal thalamocortical development, especially in early life. In this study, we aimed to investigate the developmental patterns of the cerebral cortex, the thalamic substructures, and their connectivity with the cortex in the first few weeks of the postnatal brain. We hypothesized that there is developmental synchrony of the thalamus, its cortical projections, and corresponding target cortical structures. We employed diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and divided the thalamus into five substructures respectively connecting to the frontal, precentral, postcentral, temporal, and parietal and occipital cortex. T2-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to measure cortical thickness. We found age-related increases in cortical thickness of bilateral frontal cortex and left temporal cortex in the early postnatal brain. We also found that the development of the thalamic substructures was synchronized with that of their respective thalamocortical connectivity in the first few weeks of the postnatal life. In particular, the right thalamo-frontal substructure had the fastest growth in the early postnatal brain. Our study suggests that the distinct growth patterns of the thalamic substructures are in synchrony with those of the cortex in early life, which may be critical for the development of the cortical and subcortical functional specialization.
Keywords: Cortical thickness; Diffusion tensor imaging; Neonatal brain; Thalamic nuclei; Thalamocortical connectivity.
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