Brain structural changes in premature infants appear before term age. Functional differences between premature infants and healthy fetuses during this period have yet to be explored. Here, we examined brain connectivity using resting state functional MRI in 25 very premature infants (VPT; gestational age at birth <32 weeks) and 25 healthy fetuses with structurally normal brain MRIs. Resting state data were evaluated using seed-based correlation analysis and network-based statistics using 23 regions of interest (ROIs) per hemisphere. Functional connectivity strength, the Pearson correlation between blood oxygenation level dependent signals over time across all ROIs, was compared between groups. In both cohorts, connectivity between homotopic ROIs showed a decreasing medial to lateral gradient. The cingulate cortex, medial temporal lobe and the basal ganglia shared the strongest connections. In premature infants, connections involving superior temporal, hippocampal, and occipital areas, among others, were stronger compared to fetuses. Premature infants showed stronger connectivity in sensory input and stress-related areas suggesting that extra-uterine environment exposure alters the development of select neural networks in the absence of structural brain injury.
Keywords: Functional connectivity; In utero versus ex utero brain function; Premature birth; Resting state MRI.
Copyright © 2020 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.