Neonatal necrotizing enterocolitis: clinical considerations and pathogenetic concepts

Pediatr Dev Pathol. 2003 Jan-Feb;6(1):6-23. doi: 10.1007/s10024-002-0602-z. Epub 2002 Nov 11.


Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a disease affecting predominantly premature infants, is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in neonatal intensive care units. Although several predisposing factors have been identified, such as prematurity, enteral feeding, and infection, its pathogenesis remains elusive. In the past 20 years, we have established several animal models of NEC in rats and found several endogenous mediators, especially platelet-activating factor (PAF), which may play a pivotal role in NEC. Injection of PAF induces intestinal necrosis, and PAF antagonists prevent the bowel injury induced by bacterial endotoxin, hypoxia, or challenge with tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF) plus endotoxin in adult rats. The same is true for lesions induced by hypoxia and enteral feeding in neonatal animals. Human patients with NEC show high levels of PAF and decreased plasma PAF-acetylhydrolase, the enzyme degrading PAF. The initial event in our experimental models of NEC is probably polymorphonuclear leukocyte (PMN) activation and adhesion to venules in the intestine, which initiates a local inflammatory reaction involving proinflammatory mediators including TNF, complement, prostaglandins, and leukotriene C4. Subsequent norepinephrine release and mesenteric vasoconstriction result in splanchnic ischemia and reperfusion. Bacterial products (e.g., endotoxin) enter the intestinal tissue during local mucosal barrier breakdown, and endotoxin synergizes with PAF to amplify the inflammation. Reactive oxygen species produced by the activated leukocytes and by intestinal epithelial xanthine oxidase may be the final pathway for tissue injury. Protective mechanisms include nitric oxide produced by the constitutive (mainly neuronal) nitric oxide synthase, and indigenous probiotics such as Bifidobacteria infantis. The former maintains intestinal perfusion and the integrity of the mucosal barrier, and the latter keep virulent bacteria in check. The development of tissue injury depends on the balance between injurious and protective mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / blood
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / etiology
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Newborn, Diseases / blood
  • Infant, Newborn, Diseases / etiology
  • Infant, Newborn, Diseases / pathology*
  • Platelet Activating Factor / analysis
  • Species Specificity


  • Platelet Activating Factor