Background Very preterm birth (VPT, <32 weeks' gestation) is associated with altered white matter fractional anisotropy (FA), the biological basis of which is uncertain but may relate to changes in axon density and/or dispersion, which can be measured using Neurite Orientation Dispersion and Density Imaging (NODDI). This study aimed to compare whole brain white matter FA, axon dispersion, and axon density between VPT children and controls (born ≥37 weeks' gestation), and to investigate associations with perinatal factors and neurodevelopmental outcomes. Methods FA, neurite dispersion, and neurite density were estimated from multishell diffusion magnetic resonance images for 145 VPT and 33 control 7-year-olds. Diffusion values were compared between groups and correlated with perinatal factors (gestational age, birthweight, and neonatal brain abnormalities) and neurodevelopmental outcomes (IQ, motor, academic, and behavioral outcomes) using Tract-Based Spatial Statistics. Results Compared with controls, VPT children had lower FA and higher axon dispersion within many major white matter fiber tracts. Neonatal brain abnormalities predicted lower FA and higher axon dispersion in many major tracts in VPT children. Lower FA, higher axon dispersion, and lower axon density in various tracts correlated with poorer neurodevelopmental outcomes in VPT children. Conclusions FA and NODDI measures distinguished VPT children from controls and were associated with neonatal brain abnormalities and neurodevelopmental outcomes. This study provides a more detailed and biologically meaningful interpretation of white matter microstructure changes associated with prematurit
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