Human brain functional networks are topologically organized with nontrivial connectivity characteristics such as small-worldness and densely linked hubs to support highly segregated and integrated information processing. However, how they emerge and change at very early developmental phases remains poorly understood. Here, we used resting-state functional MRI and voxel-based graph theory analysis to systematically investigate the topological organization of whole-brain networks in 40 infants aged around 31 to 42 postmenstrual weeks. The functional connectivity strength and heterogeneity increased significantly in primary motor, somatosensory, visual, and auditory regions, but much less in high-order default-mode and executive-control regions. The hub and rich-club structures in primary regions were already present at around 31 postmenstrual weeks and exhibited remarkable expansions with age, accompanied by increased local clustering and shortest path length, indicating a transition from a relatively random to a more organized configuration. Moreover, multivariate pattern analysis using support vector regression revealed that individual brain maturity of preterm babies could be predicted by the network connectivity patterns. Collectively, we highlighted a gradually enhanced functional network segregation manner in the third trimester, which is primarily driven by the rapid increases of functional connectivity of the primary regions, providing crucial insights into the topological development patterns prior to birth.
Keywords: connectome; functional connectivity; hub; preterm; rich club.
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