Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have developed a new method to process MRI scans to reveal the distinct compartments of the placenta, measure oxygen levels in each region, and determine if there are placental lesions. Obtaining this level of detail is currently not possible using standard MRI analysis methods. The small study was supported by NIH’s Human Placenta Project, which is led by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
The study team, led by Yong Wang, PhD, Washington University in St. Louis and Alison Cahill, MD, University of Texas at Austin, developed analysis methods for MRI scans that are routinely collected in hospitals and health care facilities. Importantly, these types of MRI scans do not require contrast agents, which are only used during pregnancy for limited circumstances.
The team’s machine learning method automatically processes MRI data to visualize separate placental compartments, including the intervillous space (where maternal blood enters to provide nutrients and gas exchange), placental vessels, and placental tissue. Unlike current MRI analysis methods, which can only measure placental oxygen as an average across the entire organ, the new method can characterize oxygen levels within each of these discrete compartments.
The study team also used these region-specific measurements to look for differences between 22 study participants with healthy pregnancies and five participants who went on to develop pregnancy complications. While they did observe trends—highlighting the potential for this method to detect specific pregnancy complications—further analysis is needed among larger groups of study participants.
Overall, the new method can serve as an objective quantitative method to assess placental health during pregnancy. With additional validation and refinement, this method may be used by health care providers as a tool in the care of pregnant patients, especially those at risk for pregnancy complications. And early monitoring of the placenta can help better detect and prevent complications including preterm birth, fetal growth disorders, and preeclampsia.
- This press release was originally published on the National Institutes of Health website