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Corticobulbar Tract Injury, Oromotor Impairment and Language Plasticity in Adolescents Born Preterm

Children born preterm are at risk of impairments in oromotor control, with implications for early feeding and speech development. In this study, we aimed to identify (a) neuroanatomical markers of persistent oromotor deficits using diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI) tractography and (b) evidence of compensatory neuroplasticity using functional MRI (fMRI) during a language production task. In a cross-sectional study of 36 adolescents born very preterm (<33 weeks’ gestation) we identified persistent difficulties in oromotor control in 31% of cases, but no clinical diagnoses of speech-sound disorder (e.g., dysarthria, dyspraxia). We used DWI-tractography to examine the microstructure (fractional anisotropy, FA) of the corticospinal and corticobulbar tracts. Compared to the unimpaired group, the oromotor-impaired group showed (i) reduced FA within the dorsal portion of the left corticobulbar tract (containing fibres associated with movements of the lips, tongue, and larynx) and (ii) greater recruitment of right hemisphere language regions on fMRI. We conclude that, despite the development of apparently normal everyday speech, early injury to the corticobulbar tract leads to persistent subclinical problems with voluntary control of the face, lips, jaw, and tongue. Furthermore, we speculate that early speech problems may be ameliorated by cerebral plasticity – in particular, recruitment of right hemisphere language areas.