Gyrification is a hallmark of human brain development, starting in the second half of gestation in primary cortices, followed by unimodal and then transmodal associative cortices. Alterations in gyrification have been noted in premature-born newborns and children, suggesting abnormal cortical folding to be a permanent feature of prematurity. Furthermore, both gyrification and prematurity are tightly linked with cognitive performance, indicating a link between prematurity, gyrification, and cognitive performance. To investigate this triangular relation, we tested the following two hypotheses: (i) gyrification is aberrant in premature-born adults; and (ii) aberrant gyrification contributes to the impact of prematurity on adult cognitive performance. One hundred and one very premature-born adults (i.e. adults born before 32 weeks of gestation, and/or with birth weight <1500 g) and 111 mature-born adults were assessed by structural MRI and cognitive testing at 27 years of age. Gyrification was measured by local cortical absolute mean curvature (AMC), evaluated through structural MRI. Cognitive performance was assessed by the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, full-scale IQ test. Two-sample t-tests, regression and mediation analyses were used to assess AMC group differences and the relation between AMC, birth-related variables, and full-scale IQ. Three key findings were identified. First, local AMC was widely increased in fronto-temporo-parietal primary and associative cortices of very premature-born adults. Increase of AMC was inversely associated with gestational age and birth weight and positively associated with medical complications at birth, respectively. Second, increased AMC of temporal associative cortices specifically contributed to the association between prematurity and reduced adult IQ (two-path mediation), indicating that aberrant gyrification of temporal associative cortices is critical for impaired cognitive performance after premature birth. Finally, further investigation of the relationship of gyrification between the early folding postcentral cortices and associative temporal cortices, folding later during neurodevelopment, revealed that the effect of gyrification abnormalities in associative temporal cortices on adult IQ is influenced itself by gyrification abnormalities occurring in the early folding postcentral cortices (three-path mediation). These results indicate that gyrification development across cortical areas in the brain conveys prematurity effects on adult IQ. Overall, these results provide evidence that premature birth leads to permanently aberrant gyrification patterns suggesting an altered neurodevelopmental trajectory. Statistical mediation modelling suggests that both aberrant gyrification itself as well as its propagation across the cortex express aspects of impaired neurodevelopment after premature birth and lead to reduced cognitive performance in adulthood. Thus, markers of gyrification appear as potential candidates for prognosis and treatment of prematurity effects.
Keywords: brain development; gyrification; intelligence quotient; magnetic resonance imaging; premature birth.
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