Exploring the Early Organization and Maturation of Linguistic Pathways in the Human Infant Brain

Linguistic processing is based on a close collaboration between temporal and frontal regions connected by two pathways: the “dorsal” and “ventral pathways” (assumed to support phonological and semantic processing, respectively, in adults). We investigated here the development of these pathways at the onset of language acquisition, during the first post-natal weeks, using cross-sectional diffusion imaging in 21 healthy infants (6–22 weeks of age) and 17 young adults. We compared the bundle organization and microstructure at these two ages using tractography and original clustering analyses of diffusion tensor imaging parameters. We observed structural similarities between both groups, especially concerning the dorsal/ventral pathway segregation and the arcuate fasciculus asymmetry. We further highlighted the developmental tempos of the linguistic bundles: The ventral pathway maturation was more advanced than the dorsal pathway maturation, but the latter catches up during the first post-natal months. Its fast development during this period might relate to the learning of speech cross-modal representations and to the first combinatorial analyses of the speech input.

Maturation of sensori-motor functional responses in the preterm brain

Preterm birth engenders an increased risk of conditions like cerebral palsy and therefore this time may be crucial for the brain's developing sensori-motor system. However, little is known about how cortical sensori-motor function matures at this time, whether development is influenced by experience, and about its role in spontaneous motor behavior. We aimed to systematically characterize spatial and temporal maturation of sensori-motor functional brain activity across this period using functional MRI and a custom-made robotic stimulation device. We studied 57 infants aged from 30 + 2 to 43 + 2 weeks postmenstrual age. Following both induced and spontaneous right wrist movements, we saw consistent positive blood oxygen level–dependent functional responses in the contralateral (left) primary somatosensory and motor cortices. In addition, we saw a maturational trend toward faster, higher amplitude, and more spatially dispersed functional responses; and increasing integration of the ipsilateral hemisphere and sensori-motor associative areas. We also found that interhemispheric functional connectivity was significantly related to ex-utero exposure, suggesting the influence of experience-dependent mechanisms. At term equivalent age, we saw a decrease in both response amplitude and interhemispheric functional connectivity, and an increase in spatial specificity, culminating in the establishment of a sensori-motor functional response similar to that seen in adults.

Organizing principles of human cortical development—Thickness and area from 4 to 30 years

The human cerebral cortex undergoes a protracted, regionally heterogeneous development well into young adulthood. Cortical areas that expand the most during human development correspond to those that differ most markedly when the brains of macaque monkeys and humans are compared. However, it remains unclear to what extent this relationship derives from allometric scaling laws that apply to primate brains in general, or represents unique evolutionary adaptations. Furthermore, it is unknown whether the relationship only applies to surface area (SA), or also holds for cortical thickness (CT). In 331 participants aged 4 to 30, we calculated age functions of SA and CT, and examined the correspondence of human cortical development with macaque to human expansion, and with expansion across nonhuman primates. CT followed a linear negative age function from 4 to 30 years, while SA showed positive age functions until 12 years with little further development. Differential cortical expansion across primates was related to regional maturation of SA and CT, with age trajectories differing between high- and low-expanding cortical regions. This relationship adhered to allometric scaling laws rather than representing uniquely macaque–human differences: regional correspondence with human development was as large for expansion across nonhuman primates as between humans and macaque.