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Neuropathology. 2004 Dec;24(4):284-9.

Hypoplasia of the arcuate nucleus and maternal smoking during pregnancy in sudden unexplained perinatal and infant death.

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Institute of Pathology, University of Milan, Italy.


Maternal smoking during pregnancy is the most important risk factor for sudden perinatal and infant death in more industrialized countries. The frequent observation of hypoplasia of the arcuate nucleus in the brainstem of these victims prompted the verification of whether maternal cigarette smoking could be related to defective development of this nucleus during intrauterine life, by affecting the expression of specific genes involved in its developmental process. In serial sections of the brainstem of 54 cases of sudden and unexplained fetal and infant deaths (13 stillbirths, 7 neonatal deaths and 34 sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) victims), morphological and morphometrical analysis was used to observe the different structural alterations of the arcuate nucleus (bilateral hypoplasia, monolateral hypoplasia, partial hypoplasia, delayed neuronal maturation and decreased neuronal density) detected in 24 cases (44%). Correlating this finding with smoking in pregnancy, a significantly increased incidence of cytoarchitectural alterations of the arcuate nucleus was found in stillborns and SIDS victims with smoker mothers compared to victims with non-smoker mothers. Moreover, the observation of a wide range of developing morphological defects of the arcuate nucleus related to maternal smoking led to the hypothesis that the constituents of the gas phase in cigarette smoke could directly affect the expression of genes involved in the development of this nucleus, such as the homeobox En-2 gene.

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