Can MRI scans help protect unborn babies? | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - March 2012

Can MRI scans help protect unborn babies?

Pregnancy complications result in around 4,000 stillborn babies a year in the UK, plus many others born prematurely. This is often due to problems with the placenta, so researchers in Edinburgh are looking at whether MRI scans could help detect difficulties before they happen and identify unborn babies most at risk.

When a baby is in its mother’s womb, unable to eat or breathe by itself, it depends on the placenta for a vital supply of oxygen and nutrients.

According to Dr Fiona Denison, who is leading the research team at the University of Edinburgh: “If starved of oxygen and nutrients, babies can stop growing properly – a condition known as intrauterine (or fetal) growth restriction. Others sadly lose their lives and are stillborn, a devastating outcome.”

Poor functioning of the placenta can be notoriously difficult to detect and there’s often no way to tell how badly mother and baby might be affected. Doctors and parents then face a difficult decision – to let the pregnancy continue and risk stillbirth or deliver the baby prematurely, risking disability and even death. Without a good diagnostic test, doctors often can’t tell what’s best.

The research hopes to show how state-of-the-art MRI scans can help detect fetal hypoxia – low oxygen levels in babies’ brains and within the placenta.

The team’s ultimate aim is that MRI scans will be able to inform doctors of a baby’s progress in the womb so that they’ll be better placed to decide whether to let the pregnancy continue or deliver it early. This knowledge could prove life-saving.

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