In pregnancies complicated by fetal congenital heart disease (CHD), global placental perfusion was significantly decreased and regional variation of placental perfusion significantly increased as pregnancies progressed, findings that point to non-invasive imaging providing an early warning of placental dysfunction. A Children's National Health System (CNHS) researchers report placental perfusion abnormalities in pregnancies complicated by fetal CHD measured using non-invasive fetal MRI techniques.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect, affecting 8 in 1,000 newborns. Early in pregnancy, the fetal heart follows a parallel developmental course as the placenta, which supplies the growing fetus with oxygen and nutrients while ferrying out waste products.

The study authors write that placental arteries are dynamic during pregnancy, remodeling themselves to increase blood flow as fetuses undergo explosive growth spurts in later stages of pregnancy. If this crucial remodeling does not occur, the placenta may not supply sufficient oxygen and nutrients to the fetus, leading to fetal growth restriction or preeclampsia.

The research, led by Catherine Limperopoulos, enrolled 48 pregnant women who underwent at least one fetal MRI session during their second or third trimester of pregnancy. Of all women, 31 were healthy volunteers whose mean gestational age was 30 weeks (range: 21 to 39 gestational weeks), and 17 were pregnant with fetuses diagnosed with CHD whose mean gestational age was 32 weeks (range: 22 to 38 gestational weeks).

The authors used velocity-selective arterial spinning labeling (VSASL), a powerful MRI technique that directly measures the rate of delivery of arterial blood to organs like the brain. ASL tracks water molecules within the blood flow through arteries, eliminating the need to use a contrast agent. The team was able to distinguish the placenta perfusion contributions by the fetus and the mother.

"Just like the human brain, heart and kidneys – organs that can commandeer heightened blood flow when needed – the placenta may employ an auto-regulatory mechanism to optimize perfusion," said Limperopoulos, senior author of the study. "The early increased global placental profusion in pregnancies complicated by CHD may represent an attempt to correct for insufficient fetal blood flow."

The findings demonstrate that placental dysfunction due to CHD can be apparent as early as the second trimester of pregnancy using this imaging technology. "The predictive value of VSASL imaging, which we continue to study, holds the promise of detecting dysfunction before placental abnormalities become irreversible," Limperopoulos says.