Prematurely born children often develop neurodevelopmental delay that has been correlated with reduced growth and microstructural alterations in the cerebral cortex. Much research has focused on apoptotic neuronal cell death as a key neuropathological features following preterm brain injuries. How scattered apoptotic death of neurons may contribute to microstructural alterations remains unknown. The present study investigated in a rat model the effects of targeted neuronal apoptosis on cortical microstructure using in vivo MRI imaging combined with neuronal reconstruction and histological analysis. We describe that mild, targeted death of layer IV neurons in the developing rat cortex induces MRI-defined metabolic and microstructural alterations including increased cortical fractional anisotropy. Delayed architectural modifications in cortical gray matter and myelin abnormalities in the subcortical white matter such as hypomyelination and microglia activation follow the acute phase of neuronal death and axonal degeneration. These results establish the link between mild cortical apoptosis and MRI-defined microstructure changes that are reminiscent to those previously observed in preterm babies.

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