Background: Infants born preterm are at increased risk of neurological complications resulting in significant morbidity and mortality. The exact mechanism and the impact of antenatal factors has not been fully elucidated, although antenatal infection/inflammation has been implicated in both the aetiology of preterm birth and subsequent neurological sequelae. It is therefore hypothesized that processes driving preterm birth are affecting brain development in utero. This study aims to compare MRI derived regional brain volumes in fetuses that deliver < 32 weeks with fetuses that subsequently deliver at term. Methods: Women at high risk of preterm birth, with gestation 19.4–32 weeks were recruited prospectively. A control group was obtained from existing study datasets. Fetal MRI was performed on a 1.5 T or 3 T MRI scanner: T2-weighted images were obtained of the fetal brain. 3D brain volumetric datsets were produced using slice to volume reconstruction and regional segmentations were produced using multi-atlas approaches for supratentorial brain tissue, lateral ventricles, cerebellum cerebral cortex and extra-cerebrospinal fluid (eCSF). Statistical comparison of control and high-risk for preterm delivery fetuses was performed by creating normal ranges for each parameter from the control datasets and then calculating gestation adjusted z scores. Groups were compared using t-tests. Results: Fetal image datasets from 24 pregnancies with delivery < 32 weeks and 87 control pregnancies that delivered > 37 weeks were included. Median gestation at MRI of the preterm group was 26.8 weeks (range 19.4–31.4) and control group 26.2 weeks (range 21.7–31.9). No difference was found in supra-tentorial brain volume, ventricular volume or cerebellar volume but the eCSF and cerebral cortex volumes were smaller in fetuses that delivered preterm (p < 0.001 in both cases). Conclusion: Fetuses that deliver preterm have a reduction in cortical and eCSF volumes. This is a novel finding and needs further investigation. If alterations in brain development are commencing antenatally in fetuses that subsequently deliver preterm, this may present a window for in utero therapy in the future.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102650
Pages (from-to)102650
JournalNeuroImage: Clinical
Early online date29 Mar 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 29 Mar 2021


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