White matter alterations and cognitive outcomes in children born very low birth weight

Neuroimage Clin. 2021:32:102843. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2021.102843. Epub 2021 Sep 28.


Background: Very low birth weight (VLBW) infants are at risk for disrupted white matter maturation, yet little is known about the contributing factors, particularly at preschool-age when cognitive difficulties begin to emerge. We examined white matter microstructure in five-year-old VLBW and full-term (FT) children, and its association with cognitive outcomes and birth weight.

Methods: Multi-shell diffusion and MR images were obtained for 41 VLBW (mean birth weight: 1028.6 ± 256.8 g) and 26 FT (3295.4 ± 493.9 g) children. Fractional anisotropy (FA), radial diffusivity (RD), neurite orientation dispersion index (ODI) and density index (NDI) were estimated using diffusion tensor and neurite orientation dispersion and density imaging models. Between-group analyses used a general linear model with group and sex as explanatory variables. Within-group associations between white matter microstructure, cognitive outcomes and birth weight were also investigated.

Results: VLBW compared to FT children showed lower FA and NDI across widespread white matter regions. Smaller clusters of atypical ODI were also found in VLBW children. Within-group analyses in FT children revealed that lower RD and higher NDI were associated with vocabulary acquisition and working memory. In VLBW children, higher FA and NDI, and lower RD and ODI, were associated with improved processing speed. In both groups, FA was positively associated with birth weight.

Conclusions: Our findings demonstrate white matter alterations in young VLBW children, including widespread reductions in axon density that may reflect sustained myelination disruptions. The associations with cognitive outcomes may also highlight which of the VLBW children are at higher risk for later cognitive difficulties.

Keywords: Children; Cognition; Diffusion tensor imaging; Very low birth weight; White matter.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Very Low Birth Weight
  • White Matter* / diagnostic imaging