Occipital cortical thickness in very low birth weight born adolescents predicts altered neural specialization of visual semantic category related neural networks

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Very low birth weight (VLBW) premature born infants have a high risk to develop visual perceptual and learning deficits as well as widespread functional and structural brain abnormalities during infancy and childhood. Whether and how prematurity alters neural specialization within visual neural networks is still unknown. We used functional and structural brain imaging to examine the visual semantic system of VLBW born (<1250 g, gestational age 25–32 weeks) adolescents (13–15 years, n=11, 3 males) and matched term born control participants (13–15 years, n=11, 3 males). Neurocognitive assessment revealed no group differences except for lower scores on an adaptive visuomotor integration test. All adolescents were scanned while viewing pictures of animals and tools and scrambled versions of these pictures. Both groups demonstrated animal and tool category related neural networks. Term born adolescents showed tool category related neural activity, i.e. tool pictures elicited more activity than animal pictures, in temporal and parietal brain areas. Animal category related activity was found in the occipital, temporal and frontal cortex. VLBW born adolescents showed reduced tool category related activity in the dorsal visual stream compared with controls, specifically the left anterior intraparietal sulcus, and enhanced animal category related activity in the left middle occipital gyrus and right lingual gyrus. Lower birth weight of VLBW adolescents correlated with larger thickness of the pericalcarine gyrus in the occipital cortex and smaller surface area of the superior temporal gyrus in the lateral temporal cortex. Moreover, larger thickness of the pericalcarine gyrus and smaller surface area of the superior temporal gyrus correlated with reduced tool category related activity in the parietal cortex. Together, our data suggest that very low birth weight predicts alterations of higher order visual semantic networks, particularly in the dorsal stream. The differences in neural specialization may be associated with aberrant cortical development of areas in the visual system that develop early in childhood.

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