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Objectives:Little is known about the impact of sleep disturbances on the structural properties of the developing brain. This study explored associations between childhood sleep disturbances and brain morphology at 7 years. Methods:Mothers from the Generation R cohort reported sleep disturbances in 720 children at ages 2 months, 1.5, 2, 3, and 6 years. T1-weighted Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) images were used to assess brain structure at 7 years. Associations of sleep disturbances at each age and of sleep disturbance trajectories with brain volumes (total brain volume, cortical and subcortical grey matter, white matter) were tested with linear regressions. To assess regional differences, sleep disturbance trajectories were tested as determinants for cortical thickness in whole-brain analyses. Results:Sleep disturbances followed a declining trend from toddlerhood onwards. Infant sleep was not associated with brain morphology at age 7. Per SD sleep disturbances (one frequent symptom or two less frequent symptoms) at 2 and 3 years of age, children had -6.3 (-11.7 to -0.8) cm3 and -6.4 (-11.7 to -1.7) cm3 smaller grey matter volumes, respectively. Sleep disturbances at age 6 years were associated with global brain morphology (grey matter: -7.3 (-12.1 to -2.6), p value = .01). Consistently, trajectory analyses showed that more adverse developmental course of childhood sleep disturbances are associated with smaller grey matter volumes and thinner dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Conclusion:Sleep disturbances from age 2 years onwards are associated with smaller grey matter volumes. Thinner prefrontal cortex in children with adverse sleep disturbance trajectories may reflect effects of sleep disturbances on brain maturation.

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Generation R Study Group, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.


Brain, Prefrontal Cortex, Humans, Disease Progression, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Linear Models, Longitudinal Studies, Prospective Studies, Child Development, Child, Child, Preschool, Infant, Female, Male, White Matter, Gray Matter, Sleep Wake Disorders