Fetal influence on the human brain through the lifespan

Elife. 2024 Apr 11:12:RP86812. doi: 10.7554/eLife.86812.


Human fetal development has been associated with brain health at later stages. It is unknown whether growth in utero, as indexed by birth weight (BW), relates consistently to lifespan brain characteristics and changes, and to what extent these influences are of a genetic or environmental nature. Here we show remarkably stable and lifelong positive associations between BW and cortical surface area and volume across and within developmental, aging and lifespan longitudinal samples (N = 5794, 4-82 y of age, w/386 monozygotic twins, followed for up to 8.3 y w/12,088 brain MRIs). In contrast, no consistent effect of BW on brain changes was observed. Partly environmental effects were indicated by analysis of twin BW discordance. In conclusion, the influence of prenatal growth on cortical topography is stable and reliable through the lifespan. This early-life factor appears to influence the brain by association of brain reserve, rather than brain maintenance. Thus, fetal influences appear omnipresent in the spacetime of the human brain throughout the human lifespan. Optimizing fetal growth may increase brain reserve for life, also in aging.

Keywords: aging; birth weight; brain; cortex; development; developmental biology; human; lifespan; neuroscience.

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Birth Weight
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Female
  • Fetus*
  • Humans
  • Longevity*
  • Pregnancy