Background: Very preterm (VP) children are at risk of memory and emotional impairments; however, the neural correlates remain incompletely defined. This study investigated the effect of VP birth on white matter tracts traditionally related to episodic memory and emotion.
Methods: The cingulum, fornix, uncinate fasciculus, medial forebrain bundle and anterior thalamic radiation were reconstructed using tractography in 144 VP children and 33 full-term controls at age 7 years.
Results: Compared with controls, VP children had higher axial, radial, and mean diffusivities and neurite orientation dispersion, and lower volume and neurite density in the fornix, along with higher neurite orientation dispersion in the medial forebrain bundle. Support vector classification models based on tract measures significantly classified VP children and controls. Higher fractional anisotropy and lower diffusivities in the cingulum, uncinate fasciculus, medial forebrain bundle and anterior thalamic radiation were associated with better episodic memory, independent of key perinatal risk factors. Support vector regression models using tract measures did not predict episodic memory and emotional outcomes.
Conclusions: Altered tract structure is related to adverse episodic memory outcomes in VP children, but further research is required to determine the ability of tract structure to predict outcomes of individual children.
Impact: We studied white matter fibre tracts thought to be involved in episodic memory and emotion in VP and full-term children using diffusion magnetic resonance imaging and machine learning. VP children have altered fornix and medial forebrain bundle structure compared with full-term children. Altered tract structure can be detected using machine learning, which accurately classified VP and full-term children using tract data. Altered cingulum, uncinate fasciculus, medial forebrain bundle and anterior thalamic radiation structure was associated with poorer episodic memory skills using linear regression. The ability of tract structure to predict episodic memory and emotional outcomes of individual children based on support vector regression was limited.