MRI of the Neonatal Brain: A Review of Methodological Challenges and Neuroscientific Advances

J Magn Reson Imaging. 2021 May;53(5):1318-1343. doi: 10.1002/jmri.27192. Epub 2020 May 18.


In recent years, exploration of the developing brain has become a major focus for researchers and clinicians in an attempt to understand what allows children to acquire amazing and unique abilities, as well as the impact of early disruptions (eg, prematurity, neonatal insults) that can lead to a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders. Noninvasive neuroimaging methods such as MRI are essential to establish links between the brain and behavioral changes in newborns and infants. In this review article, we aim to highlight recent and representative studies using the various techniques available: anatomical MRI, quantitative MRI (relaxometry, diffusion MRI), multiparametric approaches, and functional MRI. Today, protocols use 1.5 or 3T MRI scanners, and specialized methodologies have been put in place for data acquisition and processing to address the methodological challenges specific to this population, such as sensitivity to motion. MR sequences must be adapted to the brains of newborns and infants to obtain relevant good soft-tissue contrast, given the small size of the cerebral structures and the incomplete maturation of tissues. The use of age-specific image postprocessing tools is also essential, as signal and contrast differ from the adult brain. Appropriate methodologies then make it possible to explore multiple neurodevelopmental mechanisms in a precise way, and assess changes with age or differences between groups of subjects, particularly through large-scale projects. Although MRI measurements only indirectly reflect the complex series of dynamic processes observed throughout development at the molecular and cellular levels, this technique can provide information on brain morphology, structural connectivity, microstructural properties of gray and white matter, and on the functional architecture. Finally, MRI measures related to clinical, behavioral, and electrophysiological markers have a key role to play from a diagnostic and prognostic perspective in the implementation of early interventions to avoid long-term disabilities in children. EVIDENCE LEVEL: 2 TECHNICAL EFFICACY STAGE: 1.

Keywords: anatomical MRI; brain development; diffusion MRI; functional MRI; infants; newborns; quantitative MRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Child
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Neuroimaging
  • White Matter*