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J Anat. 2011 Sep;219(3):403-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7580.2011.01400.x. Epub 2011 Jun 20.

Analysis of cervical ribs in a series of human fetuses.

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Evolutionary Ecology Group, Department of Biology, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium.


In humans, an increasing body of evidence has linked the frequency of cervical ribs to stillbirths, other malformations and early childhood cancers. However, the frequency of cervical ribs in a putatively healthy fetal population is not sufficiently known to assess the actual medical risks of these prenatal findings. We therefore analyzed the presence of skeletal anomalies in a series of 199 electively aborted fetuses, which were whole-mount stained with alizarin red specific for skeletal tissues. Results show that approximately 40% of the fetuses had cervical ribs, even though external congenital abnormalities such as craniofacial and limb defects were absent. A literature overview indicates that the observed frequency of cervical ribs is comparable to results previously obtained for deceased fetuses with no or minor congenital anomalies, and higher than expected for healthy fetuses. This unexpected result can probably in part be explained by a higher detection rate of small cervical ribs when using alizarin red staining instead of radiographs. Additionally, studies in the literature suggest that the size of a cervical rib may indicate the severity of abnormalities, but this possibility requires further research. Anomalies of the axial skeleton are known to be caused by a disturbance of early development, which alters Hox gene expression, but in this study the origin of the stress could not be verified as maternal medical data were not available. The co-occurrence of rudimentary or absent 12th ribs in 23.6% of the cases with cervical ribs indicates that in approximately 8% of the fetuses a homeotic shift occurred over a larger part of the vertebral column. This suggests that the expression of multiple Hox genes may have been affected in these fetuses. Together, the high incidence of cervical ribs and also their co-occurrence with rudimentary or absent 12th ribs suggests that there may have been a disturbance of early development such that the studied fetuses are probably not informative about the general population. Future studies determining the frequency of cervical ribs in a more healthy fetal population are therefore needed to evaluate their potential as an indicator of medical risks.

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