The preterm brain has been analysed after birth by a large body of neuroimaging studies; however, few studies have focused on white matter alterations in preterm subjects beyond infancy, especially in individuals born at extremely low gestation age - before 28 completed weeks. Neuroimaging data of extremely preterm young adults are now available to investigate the long-term structural alterations of disrupted neurodevelopment. We examined white matter hierarchical organisation and microstructure in extremely preterm young adults. Specifically, we first identified the putative hubs and peripheral regions in 85 extremely preterm young adults and compared them with 53 socio-economically matched and full-term born peers. Moreover, we analysed Fractional Anisotropy (FA), Mean Diffusivity (MD), Neurite Density Index (NDI), and Orientation Dispersion Index (ODI) of white matter in hubs, peripheral regions, and over the whole brain. Our results suggest that the hierarchical organisation of the extremely preterm adult brain remains intact. However, there is evidence of significant alteration of white matter connectivity at both the macro- and microstructural level, with overall diminished connectivity, reduced FA and NDI, increased MD, and comparable ODI; suggesting that, although the spatial configuration of WM fibres is comparable, there are less WM fibres per voxel. These alterations are found throughout the brain and are more prevalent along the pathways between deep grey matter regions, frontal regions and cerebellum. This work provides evidence that white matter abnormalities associated with the premature exposure to the extrauterine environment not only are present at term equivalent age but persist into early adulthood.

Original languageEnglish
Article number118112
Early online date30 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 15 Aug 2021


  • Diffusion MRI
  • Graph theory
  • Prematurity
  • Brain development
  • White matter
  • Structural connectome
  • Brain microstructure
  • Long-term prematurity outcome


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