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Pathogenesis of cerebral white matter injury of prematurity
  1. O Khwaja,
  2. J J Volpe
  1. Department of Neurology, Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass, USA
  1. Dr J J Volpe, Department of Neurology, Children’s Hospital Boston, 300 Longwood Ave, Boston, Mass 02115, USA; Joseph.volpe{at}


Cerebral white matter injury, characterised by loss of premyelinating oligodendrocytes (pre-OLs), is the most common form of injury to the preterm brain and is associated with a high risk of neurodevelopmental impairment. The unique cerebrovascular anatomy and physiology of the premature baby underlies the exquisite sensitivity of white matter to the abnormal milieu of preterm extrauterine life, in particular ischaemia and inflammation. These two upstream mechanisms can coexist and amplify their effects, leading to activation of two principal downstream mechanisms: excitotoxicity and free radical attack. Upstream mechanisms trigger generation of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species. The pre-OL is intrinsically vulnerable to free radical attack due to immaturity of antioxidant enzyme systems and iron accumulation. Ischaemia and inflammation trigger glutamate receptor-mediated injury leading to maturation-dependent cell death and loss of cellular processes. This review looks at recent evidence for pathogenetic mechanisms in white matter injury with emphasis on targets for prevention and treatment of injury.

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  • Funding: The personal research described in this review was supported by grant P01 NS 38475 (JJV).

  • Competing interests: None.

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