Fiona C. Denison, Scott I. Semple, Sarah J. Stock, Jane Walker, Ian Marshall, Jane E. Norman


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PLoS One

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Placental insufficiency is a major cause of antepartum stillbirth and fetal growth restriction (FGR). In affected pregnancies, delivery is expedited when the risks of ongoing pregnancy outweigh those of prematurity. Current tests are unable to assess placental function and determine optimal timing for delivery. An accurate, non-invasive test that clearly defines the failing placenta would address a major unmet clinical need. Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H MRS) can be used to assess the metabolic profile of tissue in-vivo. In FGR pregnancies, a reduction in N-acetylaspartate (NAA)/choline ratio and detection of lactate methyl are emerging as biomarkers of impaired neuronal metabolism and fetal hypoxia, respectively. However, fetal brain hypoxia is a late and sometimes fatal event in placental compromise, limiting clinical utility of brain 1H MRS to prevent stillbirth. We hypothesised that abnormal placental 1H MRS may be an earlier biomarker of intrauterine hypoxia, affording the opportunity to optimise timing of delivery in at-risk fetuses.

Methods and Findings

We recruited three women with severe placental insufficiency/FGR and three matched controls. Using a 3T MR system and a combination of phased-array coils, a 20×20×40 mm1H MRS voxel was selected along the ‘long-axis’ of the placenta with saturation bands placed around the voxel to prevent contaminant signals. A significant choline peak (choline/lipid ratio 1.35–1.79) was detected in all healthy placentae. In contrast, in pregnancies complicated by FGR, the choline/lipid ratio was ≤0.02 in all placentae, despite preservation of the lipid peak (p<0.001).


This novel proof-of-concept study suggests that in severe placental insufficiency/FGR, the observed 60-fold reduction in the choline/lipid ratio by 1H MRS may represent an early biomarker of critical placental insufficiency. Further studies will determine performance of this test and the potential role of 1H-MRS in the in-vivo assessment of placental function to inform timing of delivery.