Volumetric grey matter alterations in adolescents and adults born very preterm suggest accelerated brain maturation

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Previous research investigating structural neurodevelopmental alterations in individuals who were born very preterm demonstrated a complex pattern of grey matter changes that defy straightforward summary. Here we addressed this problem by characterising volumetric brain alterations in individuals who were born very preterm from adolescence to adulthood at three hierarchically related levels - global, modular and regional. We demarcated structural components that were either particularly resilient or vulnerable to the impact of very preterm birth. We showed that individuals who were born very preterm had smaller global grey matter volume compared to controls, with subcortical and medial temporal regions being particularly affected. Conversely, frontal and lateral parieto-temporal cortices were relatively resilient to the effects of very preterm birth, possibly indicating compensatory mechanisms. Exploratory analyses supported this hypothesis by showing a stronger association between lateral parieto-temporal volume and IQ in the very preterm group compared to controls. We then related these alterations to brain maturation processes. Very preterm individuals exhibited a higher maturation index compared to controls, indicating accelerated brain maturation and this was specifically associated with younger gestational age. We discuss how the findings of accelerated maturation might be reconciled with evidence of delayed maturation at earlier stages of development.

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