Many children born preterm exhibit frontal executive dysfunction, behavioral problems including attentional deficit/hyperactivity disorder and attention related learning disabilities. Anomalies in regional specificity of cortico-striato-thalamo-cortical circuits may underlie deficits in these disorders. Nonspecific volumetric deficits of striatal structures have been documented in these subjects, but little is known about surface deformation in these structures. For the first time, here we found regional surface morphological differences in the preterm neonatal ventral striatum. We performed regional group comparisons of the surface anatomy of the striatum (putamen and globus pallidus) between 17 preterm and 19 term-born neonates at term-equivalent age. We reconstructed striatal surfaces from manually segmented brain magnetic resonance images and analyzed them using our in-house conformal mapping program. All surfaces were registered to a template with a new surface fluid registration method. Vertex-based statistical comparisons between the two groups were performed via four methods: univariate and multivariate tensor-based morphometry, the commonly used medial axis distance, and a combination of the last two statistics. We found statistically significant differences in regional morphology between the two groups that are consistent across statistics, but more extensive for multivariate measures. Differences were localized to the ventral aspect of the striatum. In particular, we found abnormalities in the preterm anterior/inferior putamen, which is interconnected with the medial orbital/prefrontal cortex and the midline thalamic nuclei including the medial dorsal nucleus and pulvinar. These findings support the hypothesis that the ventral striatum is vulnerable, within the cortico-stiato-thalamo-cortical neural circuitry, which may underlie the risk for long-term development of frontal executive dysfunction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and attention-related learning disabilities in preterm neonates.
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