Effects of gestational age at birth on perinatal structural brain development in healthy term-born babies


Multiple studies have demonstrated less favourable childhood outcomes in infants born in early term (37-38 weeks gestation) compared to those born at full term (40-41 weeks gestation). While this could be due to lower birthweight and greater perinatal morbidity, gestational age at birth may also have a direct effect on the brain and subsequent neurodevelopment in term-born babies. Here we characterise structural brain correlates of gestational age at birth in healthy term-born neonates and their relationship to later neurodevelopmental outcome. We used T2 and diffusion weighted Magnetic Resonance Images acquired in the neonatal period from a cohort (n=454) of healthy babies born at term age (>37 weeks gestation) and scanned between 1 and 41 days after birth. Images were analysed using tensor based morphometry (TBM) and tract based spatial statistics (TBSS). Neurodevelopment was subsequently assessed at age 18 months using the Bayley-III Scales of Infant and Toddler Development (n=281), and the effects of gestational age at birth and related neuroimaging findings on outcome were analysed with linear regression. Infants born earlier had areas of higher relative ventricular volume, and lower relative brain volume in the basal ganglia, cerebellum and brainstem. Earlier birth was also associated with lower fractional anisotropy, higher mean, axial and radial diffusivity in major white matter tracts. Gestational age at birth was positively associated with all Bayley-III subscales at age 18 months. Linear regression models predicting outcome from gestational age at birth were significantly improved by adding neuroimaging features associated with gestational age at birth. This work adds to the growing body of evidence of the impact of early term birth and highlights the importance of considering the effect of gestational age at birth in future neuroimaging studies including term-born babies.Competing Interest StatementThe authors have declared no competing interest.

Sunniva Fenn-Moltu
Sunniva Fenn-Moltu
PhD Student

I completed my undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow, before joining the MRC Doctoral Training Partnership in Biomedical Sciences at King’s College London. My PhD focuses on functional brain network topology and dynamics in typical and atypical development.