Infants born preterm are at high risk of long-term motor and neurocognitive deficits. In the majority of these infants structural MRI at the time of normal birth does not predict motor or cognitive outcomes accurately, and many infants without apparent brain lesions later develop motor and cognitive deficits. Thalamocortical connections are known to be necessary for normal brain function; they develop during late fetal life and are vulnerable to perinatal adversity. This study addressed the hypothesis that abnormalities in the functional connectivity between cortex and thalamus underlie neurocognitive impairments seen after preterm birth. Using resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in a group of 102 very preterm infants without major focal brain lesions, we used partial correlations between thalamus and functionally-derived cortical areas to determine significant connectivity between cortical areas and thalamus, and correlated the parameter estimates of these connections with standardised neurocognitive assessments in each infant at 20 months of age. Pre-motor association cortex connectivity to thalamus correlates with motor function, while connectivity between primary sensory-motor cortex and thalamus correlates with cognitive scores. These results demonstrate the importance and vulnerability of functional thalamocortical connectivity development in the perinatal period for later neurocognitive functioning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-29
Number of pages13
Early online date11 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2021


  • Cognitive outcome
  • Functional MRI
  • Motor outcome
  • Preterm infants
  • Thalamocortical connectivity


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