Can Monitoring Fetal Intestinal Inflammation Using Heart Rate Variability Analysis Signal Incipient Necrotizing Enterocolitis of the Neonate?

Pediatr Crit Care Med. 2016 Apr;17(4):e165-76. doi: 10.1097/PCC.0000000000000643.


Objective: Necrotizing enterocolitis of the neonate is an acute inflammatory intestinal disease that can cause necrosis and sepsis. Chorioamnionitis is a risk factor of necrotizing enterocolitis. The gut represents the biggest vagus-innervated organ. Vagal activity can be measured via fetal heart rate variability. We hypothesized that fetal heart rate variability can detect fetuses with incipient gut inflammation.

Design: Prospective animal study.

Setting: University research laboratory.

Subjects: Chronically instrumented near-term fetal sheep (n = 21).

Measurements and main results: Animals were surgically instrumented with vascular catheters and electrocardiogram to allow manipulation and recording from nonanesthetized animals. In 14 fetal sheep, inflammation was induced with lipopolysaccharide (IV) to mimic chorioamnionitis. Fetal arterial blood samples were drawn at selected time points over 54 hours post lipopolysaccharide for blood gas and cytokines (interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor-α enzymelinked immunosorbent assay). Fetal heart rateV was quantified throughout the experiment. The time-matched fetal heart rate variability measures were correlated to the levels of interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor-α. Upon necropsy, ionized calcium binding adaptor molecule 1+ (Iba1+), CD11c+ (M1), CD206+ (M2 macrophages), and occludin (leakiness marker) immunofluorescence in the terminal ileum was quantified along with regional Iba1+ signal in the brain (microglia). Interleukin-6 peaked at 3 hours post lipopolysaccharide accompanied by mild cardiovascular signs of sepsis. At 54 hours, we identified an increase in Iba1+ and, specifically, M1 macrophages in the ileum accompanied by increased leakiness, with no change in Iba1 signal in the brain. Preceding this change on tissue level, at 24 hours, a subset of nine fetal heart rate variability measures correlated exclusively to the Iba+ markers of ileal, but not brain, inflammation. An additional fetal heart rate variability measure, mean of the differences of R-R intervals, correlated uniquely to M1 ileum macrophages increasing due to lipopolysaccharide.

Conclusions: We identified a unique subset of fetal heart rate variability measures reflecting 1.5 days ahead of time the levels of macrophage activation and increased leakiness in terminal ileum. We propose that such subset of fetal heart rate variability measures reflects brain-gut communication via the vagus nerve. Detecting such noninvasively obtainable organ-specific fetal heart rate variability signature of inflammation would alarm neonatologists about neonates at risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis and sepsis. Clinical validation studies are required.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cardiotocography
  • Chorioamnionitis* / chemically induced
  • Chorioamnionitis* / immunology
  • Cytokines / blood
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / diagnosis*
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / etiology
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Heart Rate, Fetal*
  • Humans
  • Ileum / pathology
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Macrophage Activation
  • Pregnancy
  • Prospective Studies
  • Sheep


  • Cytokines
  • Lipopolysaccharides