Abstract: The establishment of neural circuitry during early infancy is critical for developing visual, auditory, and motor functions. However, how cortical tissue develops postnatally is largely unknown. By combining T1 relaxation time from quantitative MRI and mean diffusivity (MD) from diffusion MRI, we tracked cortical tissue development in infants across three timepoints (newborn, 3 months, and 6 months). Lower T1 and MD indicate higher microstructural tissue density and more developed cortex. Our data reveal three main findings: First, primary sensory-motor areas (V1: visual, A1: auditory, S1: somatosensory, M1: motor) have lower T1 and MD at birth than higher-level cortical areas. However, all primary areas show significant reductions in T1 and MD in the first six months of life, illustrating profound tissue growth after birth. Second, significant reductions in T1 and MD from newborns to 6-month-olds occur in all visual areas of the ventral and dorsal visual streams. Strikingly, this development was heterogenous across the visual hierarchies: Earlier areas are more developed with denser tissue at birth than higher-order areas, but higher-order areas had faster rates of development. Finally, analysis of transcriptomic gene data that compares gene expression in postnatal vs. prenatal tissue samples showed strong postnatal expression of genes associated with myelination, synaptic signaling, and dendritic processes. Our results indicate that these cellular processes may contribute to profound postnatal tissue growth in sensory cortices observed in our in-vivo measurements. We propose a novel principle of postnatal maturation of sensory systems: development of cortical tissue proceeds in a hierarchical manner, enabling the lower-level areas to develop first to provide scaffolding for higher-order areas, which begin to develop more rapidly following birth to perform complex computations for vision and audition.
This work is published here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s42003-021-02706-w