Research: Links between fetal brain development and placental oxygen

Researchers employ MRI to demonstrate how placental health may affect a child’s behaviour and cognitive development.

According to a recent study, the placenta’s oxygenation levels, which are produced during the final three months of fetal development, are a significant predictor of cortical growth, or the development of the cerebral cortex, the brain’s outermost layer, and are probably also a predictor of children’s behaviour and intellect.

Many factors can disrupt healthy brain development in utero, and this study demonstrates the placenta is a crucial mediator between maternal health and fetal brain health.

Emma Duerden, Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience & Learning Disorders at Western University

Previous studies using ultrasound had shown a link between placental health and children’s cognitive abilities; however, in this study, Duerden, research scientist Emily Nichols, and an interdisciplinary team of Western and Lawson researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a far better and more comprehensive imaging technique. Researchers may now investigate neurodevelopmental abnormalities at an early stage of life thanks to this innovative method of visualising placental growth, which may eventually lead to the creation of medicines and treatments.

While ultrasound provides some measure of placental function, it is imprecise and prone to error, so MRI is just a bit more specific and precise.

You wouldn’t use MRI necessarily to diagnose placental growth restriction, you would use ultrasound, but MRI gives us a much better way to understand the mechanisms of the placenta and how placental function is affecting the fetal brain.

Nichols, lead author of the study

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Duerden and Nichols led the study, which was co-authored by academics from the Faculty of Education, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western Engineering, and Lawson Health Research Institute. It was published in the high-impact journal JAMA Network Open.

An essential endocrine organ during pregnancy, the placenta is an organ that grows in the uterus and serves as the fetus’s primary source of nutrition and oxygen.

Anything a fetus needs to grow and thrive is mostly delivered through the placenta so if there is anything wrong with the placenta, the fetus might not be receiving the nutrients or the levels of oxygenation it needs to thrive


Foetal growth limitation can be caused by inadequate nutrition, smoking, cocaine use, chronic hypertension, anaemia, and diabetes, which can also pose issues for the placenta’s development. Foetal growth restriction affects around 6% of births worldwide and affects 30 million pregnancies annually. It is a rather common occurrence.

There can be many issues related to the healthy development of the placenta.

If it does not develop properly, the fetal brain may not get enough oxygen and nutrients, which may affect childhood cognition and behaviour.


According to the study, a healthy placenta during the third trimester has a special effect on the child’s cortex and prefrontal cortex, two key brain areas for memory and learning.

An unhealthy placenta can place babies at risk for later life learning difficulties, or even something more serious, like a neurodevelopmental disorder.

This research can open a lot of doors as we still don’t really understand everything there is to know about the placenta. We are just scratching the surface.


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The study’s findings suggest that while placental oxygenation during the third trimester predicts foetal cortical growth the formation of the cerebral cortex, the brain’s outermost layer it may not have an impact on subcortical maturation or the development of the brain’s deep grey and white matter systems.

The brain’s subcortical regions, such as the amygdala and basal ganglia, which regulate children’s mood and motor abilities, may be more susceptible to elements that impact the placenta during the second trimester.

We now have a better understanding of how the placenta affects the cortex. With this basic knowledge, we now have an idea of how these two things are related and we can identify or benchmark healthy levels that lead to brain cortical growth.

The subcortical regions of the brain appear to be unaffected by placental growth, at least in the healthy samples from our study.


This is one of the few datasets in the world where there are two scans collected in utero during the third trimester. There are not many groups in the world doing fetal MRI, so it is a super-rich data set that allows us to look at growth over time.

Western is probably one of the few places where we can do the research because we have the expertise and the facilities to do it.


Source: University of Western, Ontario – Western News

Journal Reference: Nichols ES, Al-Saoud S, de Vrijer B, et al. T2* Mapping of Placental Oxygenation to Estimate Fetal Cortical and Subcortical Maturation. JAMA Netw Open. 2024;7(2):e240456. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2024.0456.

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