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Preterm birth has been associated with altered microstructural properties of the white matter and lower cognitive ability in childhood and adulthood. Due to methodological limitations of the diffusion tensor model, it is not clear whether alterations in myelination or variation in fibre orientation are driving these differences. Novel models applied to multi-shell diffusion imaging have been used to disentangle these effects, but to date this has not been used to study the preterm brain in adulthood. This study investigated whether novel advanced diffusion MRI metrics such as microscopic anisotropy and orientation dispersion are altered in adults born preterm, and whether this was associated with cognitive performance. Seventy-two preterm born participants (<37 weeks gestational age) were recruited from a 1982-1984 cohort (33 males, mean age 33.5 ± 1.0 years). Seventy-two term born (>37 weeks gestational age) controls (34 males, mean age 30.9 ± 4.0 years) were recruited from the general population. Tensor FA was calculated with FSL, while microscopic FA and orientation dispersion entropy (ODE) were estimated using the Spherical Mean Technique (SMT). Estimated Full Scale IQ (FSIQ), Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI) and Perceptual Reasoning Index (PRI) were obtained from the WASI-II (abbreviated) IQ test. Voxel-wise comparisons using FSL's tract-based spatial statistics were performed to test between-group differences in diffusion MRI metrics as well as within-group associations of diffusion MRI metrics and IQ outcomes. The preterm group had significantly lower FSIQ, VCI and PRI scores. Preterm subjects demonstrated widespread decreases in ODE reflecting increased fibre dispersion, but no differences in microscopic FA. Tensor FA was increased in a small area in the anterior corona radiata. Lower FA values in the preterm population were associated with lower FSIQ and PRI scores. An increase in fibre dispersion in white matter and lower IQ scores after preterm birth exist in adulthood. Advanced diffusion MRI metrics such as the orientation dispersion entropy can be used to monitor white matter alterations across the lifespan in preterm born individuals. Although not significantly different between preterm and term groups, tensor FA values in the preterm group were associated with cognitive outcome.

Original publication




Journal article


Hum Brain Mapp

Publication Date



cognition, diffusion weighted imaging, magnetic resonance imaging, preterm birth, white matter