Objective: To use structural connectivity to (1) compare brain networks between typically and atypically developing (very preterm) children, (2) explore associations between potential perinatal developmental disturbances and brain networks, and (3) describe associations between brain networks and functional impairments in very preterm children. Methods: 26 full-term and 107 very preterm 7-year-old children (born < 30 weeks' gestational age and/or < 1250 g) underwent T1- and diffusion-weighted imaging. Global white matter fibre networks were produced using 80 cortical and subcortical nodes, and edges were created using constrained spherical deconvolution-based tractography. Global graph theory metrics were analysed, and regional networks were identified using network-based statistics. Cognitive and motor function were assessed at 7 years of age. Results: Compared with full-term children, very preterm children had reduced density, lower global efficiency and higher local efficiency. Those with lower gestational age at birth, infection or higher neonatal brain abnormality score had reduced connectivity. Reduced connectivity within a widespread network was predictive of impaired IQ, while reduced connectivity within the right parietal and temporal lobes was associated with motor impairment in very preterm children. Conclusions: This study utilised an innovative structural connectivity pipeline to reveal that children born very preterm have less connected and less complex brain networks compared with typically developing term-born children. Adverse perinatal factors led to disturbances in white matter connectivity, which in turn are associated with impaired functional outcomes, highlighting novel structure–function relationships.
- Diffusion weighted imaging
- Magnetic resonance imaging