Sex differences in modulation of fetoplacental vascular resistance in growth-restricted mouse fetuses following betamethasone administration: comparisons with human fetuses

Am J Obstet Gynecol MFM. 2021 Jan;3(1):100251. doi: 10.1016/j.ajogmf.2020.100251. Epub 2020 Oct 6.


Background: Maternally administered corticosteroids are routinely used to accelerate fetal lung maturation in pregnancies at risk of early preterm delivery. Although, among the subgroup with growth restriction, a majority show a temporary improvement in umbilical artery Doppler waveforms that may be sustained up to 7 days, a minority will acutely decompensate in response to corticosteroids in association with deteriorating umbilical and fetal Doppler waveforms. The basis for such acute Doppler changes is presently unknown. Our group has developed a noninvasive ultrasound methodology to measure wave reflections in the umbilical artery and have established that wave reflection metrics are sensitive to structural changes in the placental vasculature and to acute changes in vascular tone. Using this approach, we demonstrated in healthy pregnant mice that fetoplacental vascular resistance decreased in betamethasone-treated mice compared with saline-treated controls.

Objective: This study aimed to investigate the effects of betamethasone administration on the wave reflection metrics in a mouse model of fetal growth restriction and to compare these findings with equivalent measurements in human fetuses.

Study design: Pregnant CD-1 mice were housed from embryonic day 14.5 to embryonic day 17.5 in either a normoxic (21% O2, n=24) or hypoxic environment (11% O2, n=22), the latter being an established mouse model of fetal growth restriction. To investigate the effect of maternally administered betamethasone on the fetoplacental vasculature, ultrasound imaging was performed at baseline and 4 hours after treatment (either betamethasone or sterile saline). Umbilical artery wave reflection metrics were compared between the groups and for the effect of fetal sex. In addition, a cohort of 10 pregnant women with elevated umbilical artery pulsatility index and evidence of fetal growth restriction and 6 controls were imaged before and after corticosteroid administration.

Results: In the mouse model, after betamethasone administration, the female fetuses from the hypoxia group showed a 15% increase in umbilical artery diameter, a 98% increase in umbilical artery blood flow, and a 27% decrease in umbilical artery reflection coefficient, whereas the males from the hypoxia group showed no substantial changes. In agreement with our mouse findings, umbilical artery reflections were found to be larger in human growth-restricted fetuses than controls in women at risk of preterm birth.

Conclusion: Our studies provide insight into the mechanism whereby the human growth-restricted fetus may exhibit a temporary favorable fetoplacental vascular response to maternally administered corticosteroids. Further investigations are needed to understand why the male growth-restricted fetus seems unable to mount this favorable vascular response.

Keywords: chronic hypoxia; corticosteroids; fetal sex; growth restriction; mouse; placenta; pregnancy; ultrasound; wave reflection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Betamethasone*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Placenta / diagnostic imaging
  • Pregnancy
  • Premature Birth*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Umbilical Arteries / diagnostic imaging
  • Vascular Resistance


  • Betamethasone