In Utero Imaging of the Placenta: Importance for Diseases of Pregnancy
Maurice Panigel demonstrated by X-rays, almost 40 years ago, placental maternal blood jets in non-human primates. Although to researchers the importance of the placenta is evident, in clinical obstetrical imaging, the fetus takes precedence. The placenta is imaged almost as an after thought and mostly to determine its location in the uterus. In animal species, the placenta was imaged with techniques which would be considered too invasive (or too costly for routine use) in humans, many pioneered by Panigel: radioangiography, radioisotopes scintigraphy, thermography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and spectroscopy, positive emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). Ultrasound allows for detailed, and, as far as is known, safe analyses of not only placental structure in the human but also its function. Earlier, only 2-dimensional grey-scale was available and more than 20 years ago, placental grading was popular. Later, colour imaging and spectral Doppler analysis of blood velocity both in the umbilical artery and within the placenta as well as the uterus and fetal vessels became essential and, more recently, the use of ultrasound contrast agents has been described, albeit not yet in a clinical setting. Three-dimensional ultrasound permits evaluation of the placenta in several planes, more precise depiction of internal vasculature as well as more accurate volume assessment. Several medical disorders of the pregnant woman or her fetus begin or end in the placenta, and ultrasound is the optimal investigation method. Obvious examples include pre-eclampsia and other forms of hypertension in pregnancy, less than optimal fetal growth (i.e. intrauterine growth restriction), triploidy (and its placental manifestation: partial mole), non-immune hydrops as well as several infectious processes. Ultrasound is also particularly suited to evaluate specific placental conditions, such as abnormal placentation (placenta previa and accrete for instance), gestational trophoblastic disease and placental tumors (e.g. chorioangioma).
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