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Preterm birth is associated with dysconnectivity of structural brain networks and is a leading cause of neurocognitive impairment in childhood. Variation in DNA methylation (DNAm) is associated with early exposure to extrauterine life but there has been little research exploring its relationship with brain development. Using genome-wide DNA methylation data from saliva of 258 neonates, we investigated the impact of gestational age on the methylome and performed functional analysis to identify enriched gene sets from probes that contributed to differentially methylated probes (DMPs) or regions (DMRs). We tested the hypothesis that variation in DNAm could underpin the association between preterm birth and atypical brain development by linking DMPs with measures of white matter connectivity derived from diffusion MRI metrics: peak width of skeletonised mean diffusivity (PSMD), fractional anisotropy (PSFA) and neurite density index (PSNDI). Gestational age at birth was associated with widespread differential methylation, with genome-wide significant associations observed for 8,870 CpG probes (p<3.6x10-8) and 1,767 differentially methylated regions. Functional analysis identified 14 enriched gene ontology terms pertaining to cell-cell contacts and cell-extracellular matrix contacts. Principal component analysis of probes with genome-wide significance revealed a first principal component (PC1) that explained 23.5% of variance in DNAm, and this was negatively associated with gestational age at birth. PC1 was associated with PSMD ({beta}=0.349, p=8.37x10-10) and PSNDI ({beta}=0.364, p=4.15x10-5), but not with PSFA ({beta}=-0.035, p=0.510); these relationships mirrored the imaging metrics associations with gestational age at birth. Gestational age at birth has a profound and widely distributed effect on the neonatal saliva methylome. Enriched gene ontology terms related to cell-cell contacts reveal pathways that could mediate the effect of early life environmental exposures on development. Finally, associations between differential DNAm and image markers of white matter tract microstructure suggest that variation in DNAm may provide a link between preterm birth and the dysconnectivity of developing brain networks that characterises atypical brain development in preterm infants.

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