Development of Brain Networks In Utero: Relevance for Common Neural Disorders

Biol Psychiatry. 2020 Jul 1;88(1):40-50. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2020.02.007. Epub 2020 Feb 19.


Magnetic resonance imaging, histological, and gene analysis approaches in living and nonliving human fetuses and in prematurely born neonates have provided insight into the staged processes of prenatal brain development. Increased understanding of micro- and macroscale brain network development before birth has spurred interest in understanding the relevance of prenatal brain development to common neurological diseases. Questions abound as to the sensitivity of the intrauterine brain to environmental programming, to windows of plasticity, and to the prenatal origin of disorders of childhood that involve disruptions in large-scale network connectivity. Much of the available literature on human prenatal neural development comes from cross-sectional or case studies that are not able to resolve the longitudinal consequences of individual variation in brain development before birth. This review will 1) detail specific methodologies for studying the human prenatal brain, 2) summarize large-scale human prenatal neural network development, integrating findings from across a variety of experimental approaches, 3) explore the plasticity of the early developing brain as well as potential sex differences in prenatal susceptibility, and 4) evaluate opportunities to link specific prenatal brain developmental processes to the forms of aberrant neural connectivity that underlie common neurological disorders of childhood.

Keywords: Child; Connectivity; Fetal; MRI; Prenatal; Psychopathology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping
  • Brain* / diagnostic imaging
  • Child
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Nervous System Diseases*
  • Neural Pathways / diagnostic imaging
  • Pregnancy