The placenta has a critical role in delivery of oxygen and an array of nutrients, hormones, antibodies and other biochemicals to the fetus, as well as the elimination of carbon dioxide and other waste products from the fetal circulation. Interrogating placental function is therefore essential for assessment of fetal and maternal health during gestation. Although the central role of adequate blood flow and oxygen delivery is clear, the lack of optimized imaging modalities to study placental structure has impeded our understanding of its vascular function. MRI is increasingly being applied in this field, but gaps in knowledge remain and further MRI methodological developments are needed. In particular, the ability to distinguish maternal from fetal placental perfusion, and the understanding of how individual placental lobules are functioning is lacking. The potential clinical benefits of developing noninvasive tools for the in vivo assessment of blood flow and oxygenation, two key determinants of placental function, are tremendous. Here we summarize a number of structural and functional MRI techniques that have been developed and applied in animal models and studies of human pregnancy over the past decade. We briefly discuss potential applications and limitations for these approaches. Their combination provides a novel source of contrast to allow analysis of placental structure and function at the level of the lobule. We outline physiological mechanisms of placental T2 and T2* decay and devise a model of how tissue composition affects the observed relaxation properties. We apply this modelling to longitudinal MRI data obtained from a pre-clinical pregnant nonhuman primate (NHP) model to provide initial proof-of-concept data for this methodology which quantifies oxygen transfer and placental structure across and between lobules. This method has the potential to improve our understanding and clinical management of placental insufficiency once validation in a larger NHP cohort is complete.

Original languageEnglish
JournalBiology of Reproduction
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 5 Mar 2024


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