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Fetal brain injury following prolonged hypoxemia and placental insufficiency: a review.

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  • 1Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia.


It is well-established that severe, acute episodes of hypoxemia can damage the brain before birth, but the effects of more sustained hypoxemia are less well understood. We have used fetal fetal sheep in a series of studies aimed at determining the effects of prolonged hypoxemia, induced by placental insufficiency of differing severity and duration, on fetal brain structure. Restriction of placental, and hence fetal, growth by carunclectomy caused impaired development of neural processes and connections in the hippocampus, cerebellum, and visual cortex; neuronal migration and neuronal numbers did not appear to be affected. Twenty days of placental insufficiency during late gestation induced by umbilicoplacental embolisation also caused abnormalities in brain structure; the cerebellum, which develops late in gestation, was particularly affected. In the cortex, there was evidence of white matter lesions, an increase in the size of capillaries and a proliferation of astroglia. We also examined the effects of shorter periods of hypoxemia (6-12 hr) near mid-gestation on brain structure; fetuses were allowed to recover for 7 or 35 days after the hypoxemic challenge. The major changes were mild focal damage in the cortical white matter, a reduction in the number of Purkinje cells, a delay in the growth of neural processes in the cerebellum and proliferation of blood vessels. The hippocampus was also affected, in particular the areal density of pyramidal cells was reduced. The use of several classes of pharmacological agents with the potential to protect neurons from hypoxemic injury is discussed in relation to the developing brain.

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