Background: Early exposure to nociceptive events may cause brain structural alterations in preterm neonates, with long-lasting consequences on neurodevelopmental outcome. Little is known on the extent to which early pain may affect brain connectivity. We aim to evaluate brain functional connectivity changes in preterm neonate that underwent multiple invasive procedures during the postnatal period, and to correlate them with the neurodevelopmental outcome at 24 months.
Methods: In this prospective case-control study, we collected information about exposure to painful events during the early postnatal period and resting-state BOLD-fMRI data at term equivalent age from two groups of preterm neonate: 33 subjected to painful procedures during the neonatal intensive care (mean gestational age 27.9 ± 1.8 weeks) and 13 who did not require invasive procedures (average gestational age 31.2 ± 2.1 weeks). A data-driven principal-component-based multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) was used to investigate the effect of early pain exposure on brain functional connectivity, and the relationship between connectivity changes and neurodevelopmental outcome at 24 months, assessed with Griffiths, Developmental Scale-Revised: 0-2.
Results: Early pain was associated with decreased functional connectivity between thalami and bilateral somatosensory cortex, and between the right insular cortex and ipsilateral amygdala and hippocampal regions, with a more evident effect in preterm neonate undergoing more invasive procedures. Functional connectivity of the right thalamocortical pathway was related to neuromotor outcome at 24 months (P = 0.003).
Conclusion: Early exposure to pain is associated with abnormal functional connectivity of developing networks involved in the modulation of noxious stimuli in preterm neonate, contributing to the neurodevelopmental consequence of preterm birth.