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MRI ‘Probe’ Noninvasively Measures Placental Health

By MedImaging International staff writers
Posted on 08 Feb 2024
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Image: A potential method uses MRI for noninvasively assessing placental health during pregnancy (Photo courtesy of 123RF)
Image: A potential method uses MRI for noninvasively assessing placental health during pregnancy (Photo courtesy of 123RF)

The health of the placenta is essential for the well-being of a baby. However, currently, there isn't a direct method to evaluate how effectively this vital organ functions. Researchers have now demonstrated a noninvasive technique that has the potential to assess placental health during pregnancy. They achieved this by using advanced MRI methods to measure placental vascular reactivity, which refers to the placenta's ability to adjust its blood supply according to the fetus's needs.

In their study, researchers at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA, USA) focused on the placenta's crucial role in maintaining a stable oxygen environment for the developing fetus. The study involved 34 women with healthy pregnancies, whose gestational ages ranged from 22 to 32 weeks. Each participant underwent a seven-minute placental MRI examination. During the MRI, the women were instructed via video to perform yoga-like breathing exercises, including inhaling, holding their breath briefly, and then exhaling slowly. The researchers monitored the changing carbon dioxide levels of the mothers during these exercises. Employing a technique known as blood oxygen-dependent MRI, they observed the dilation and contraction of the placenta’s vascular system in response to these changing levels, without the use of external oxygen or contrast agents. The researchers aimed to assess the placenta's response to everyday changes and situations, rather than creating an artificial environment.

The findings of the study indicate that MRI can reliably measure placental vascular reactivity using these methods. This proof-of-concept study introduces a novel, noninvasive way to assess placental vascular health and function during pregnancy. The researchers also discovered that the placenta becomes more responsive as the fetus matures. Furthermore, they noted that irrespective of gestational age, a more reactive placenta correlated with a larger brain size in the baby. The research team’s next objective is to investigate the impact of placental dysfunction on brain development in babies with congenital heart disease. The ultimate aim is to enable clinicians to use placental vascular reactivity as a diagnostic tool for early detection of placental dysfunction, allowing for timely intervention.

“It’s exciting because this could serve as a potential biomarker, or functional probe, of placental health,” said Vidya Rajagopalan, Ph.D., an investigator in the Division of Cardiology at CHLA. “And it’s noninvasive. It doesn’t hurt mom; it doesn’t hurt baby.”

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