Ultrasound scanning has been used as a diagnostic and screening tool in obstetric practice for over 50 years. There is no evidence of immediate or long-term harm to the developing fetus from exposure to B mode ultrasound. However, exposure to high levels of Doppler ultrasound during early development is increasingly common, and the full safety implications of this exposure are not clear. Doppler ultrasound exposure in utero gives rise to increased apoptosis in animal models, and there is evidence of the effects of exposure to Doppler ultrasound persisting throughout life, with increased non-right-handedness observed in human epidemiological studies. We consider the idea that there may be long-term developmental implications for fetuses exposed to Doppler ultrasound early in gestation. These effects may be mediated via thermal or mechanical disruption to the developing conceptus, giving rise to free radical damage. Excess free radical exposure early in gestation is a strong candidate for the final common pathway underlying developmental programming effects, and gives rise to concern that fetuses exposed to high levels of ultrasound are at risk of a developmental programming effect. It is suggested that there is a need for animal studies of developmental programming using exposure to Doppler ultrasound scanning as the exposure of interest, and for more observational data to be collected in the clinical setting. While these data are collected, it seems prudent to continue to adhere to the principle of 'as low as reasonably achievable' (ALARA) when exposing first-trimester fetuses to Doppler ultrasound.
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