Structural Development of Human Fetal and Preterm Brain Cortical Plate Based on Population-Averaged Templates

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We hypothesized that the distinct maturational processes take place across different cortical areas from middle fetal stage to normal time of birth and these maturational processes are altered in late third trimester. Fractional anisotropies (FA) from diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) infer the microstructures of the early developing cortical plate. High-resolution DTI of 11 fetal brain specimens at postmenstrual age of 20 weeks (or simplified as 20 weeks), 19 in vivo brains at 35 weeks, and 17 in vivo brains at normal time of birth at term (40 weeks) were acquired. Population-averaged age-specific DTI templates were established with large deformation diffeomorphic metric mapping for subject groups at 20, 35, and 40 weeks. To alleviate partial volume effects, skeletonized FA values were used for mapping averaged cortical FA to the cortical surface and measuring FA at 12 functionally distinctive cortical regions. Significant and heterogeneous FA decreases take place in distinct cortical areas from 20 to 35 weeks and from 35 to 40 weeks, suggesting differentiated cortical development patterns. Temporally nonuniform FA decrease patterns during 35–40 weeks compared with those during 20–35 weeks were observed in higher-order association cortex. Measured skeletonized FA suggested dissociated changes between cerebral cortex and white matter during 35–40 weeks.

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