White matter microstructure is associated with language in children born very preterm

Ines M. Mürner-Lavanchy, Claire E. Kelly, Natalie Reidy, Lex W. Doyle, Katherine J. Lee, Terrie Inder, Deanne K. Thompson, Angela T. Morgan, Peter J. Anderson

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9 Citations (Scopus)


Very preterm birth is associated with altered white matter microstructure and language difficulties, which may compromise communication, social function and academic achievement, but the relationship between these two factors is unclear. The aim of this study was to explore associations between white matter microstructure and language domains of semantics, grammar and phonological awareness at 7-years of age on a whole-brain level and within the arcuate fasciculus, an important language pathway, in very preterm and term-born children. Language was assessed in 145 very preterm-born (<30 weeks’ gestation and/or <1250 g birth weight) and 33 term-born children aged 7 years. Fractional anisotropy (FA), axial diffusivity (AD), radial diffusivity (RD), mean diffusivity (MD), axon orientation dispersion and axon density were estimated from diffusion magnetic resonance images also obtained at 7 years. The correlation between diffusion values and language was assessed using Tract-Based Spatial Statistics (TBSS). The arcuate fasciculus was delineated using constrained spherical deconvolution tractography and diffusion parameters from this tract were related to language measures using linear regression. While there was evidence for widespread associations between white matter microstructure and language, there was little evidence of differences in these associations between very preterm and term-born groups. TBSS analyses revealed that higher FA and lower AD, RD, and MD in major fibre tracts, including those subserving language, were associated with better semantic, grammar and phonological awareness performance. Higher axon density in widespread fibre tracts was also associated with better semantic performance. The tractography analyses of the arcuate fasciculus showed some evidence for associations between white matter microstructure and language outcomes. White matter microstructural organisation in widespread fibre tracts, including language-relevant pathways, was associated with language performance in whole-brain and tract-based analyses. The associations were similar for very preterm and term-born groups, despite very preterm children performing more poorly across language domains.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)808-822
Number of pages15
JournalNeuroImage: Clinical
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018


  • Diffusion-weighted imaging
  • Language
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • Preterm birth

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