Early brain development is characterized by rapid growth and perpetual reconfiguration, driven by a dynamic milieu of heterogeneous processes. Postnatal brain plasticity is associated with increased vulnerability to environmental stimuli. However, little is known regarding the ontogeny and temporal manifestations of inter- and intra-regional functional connectivity that comprise functional brain networks. Resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) has emerged as a promising non-invasive neuroinvestigative tool, measuring spontaneous fluctuations in blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal at rest that reflect baseline neuronal activity. Over the past decade, its application has expanded to infant populations providing unprecedented insight into functional organization of the developing brain, as well as early biomarkers of abnormal states. However, many methodological issues of rs-fMRI analysis need to be resolved prior to standardization of the technique to infant populations. As a primary goal, this methodological manuscript will (1) present a robust methodological protocol to extract and assess resting-state networks in early infancy using independent component analysis (ICA), such that investigators without previous knowledge in the field can implement the analysis and reliably obtain viable results consistent with previous literature; (2) review the current methodological challenges and ethical considerations associated with emerging field of infant rs-fMRI analysis; and (3) discuss the significance of rs-fMRI application in infants for future investigations of neurodevelopment in the context of early life stressors and pathological processes. The overarching goal is to catalyze efforts toward development of robust, infant-specific acquisition, and preprocessing pipelines, as well as promote greater transparency by researchers regarding methods used.
Keywords: blood oxygen level dependent; functional magnetic resonance imaging; independent component analysis; magnetic resonance imaging; neurodevelopment; pediatric; resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging; resting-state networks.