Background: Prenatal spina bifida aperta repair improves neurologic outcomes yet comes with a significant risk of prematurity and uterine scar-related complications. To reduce such complications, different fetoscopic techniques, for example, with varying numbers of ports, are being explored. This has an effect on the duration of the procedure, potentially affecting central nervous system development. Both the condition and anesthesia can affect the central nervous system, particularly the hippocampus, a region crucial for prospective and episodic memory. Previous animal studies have shown the potential influence of anesthesia, premature delivery, and maternal surgery during pregnancy on this area.

Objective: This study aimed to compare the effects of 2- vs 3-port fetoscopic spina bifida aperta repair in the fetal lamb model using neuron count of the hippocampus as the primary outcome.

Study design: Based on the hippocampal neuron count from previous lamb experiments, we calculated that we required 5 animals per group to achieve a statistical power of ≥ 80%. A spina bifida aperta defect was developed in fetal lambs at 75 days of gestation (term: 145 days). At 100 days, fetuses underwent either a 2-port or 3-port fetoscopic repair. At 143 days, all surviving fetuses were delivered by cesarean delivery, anesthetized, and transcardially perfused with a mixture of formaldehyde and gadolinium. Next, they underwent neonatal brain and spine magnetic resonance imaging after which these organs were harvested for histology. Hippocampus, frontal cortex, caudate nucleus, and cerebellum samples were immunostained to identify neurons, astrocytes, microglia, and markers associated with cell proliferation, myelination, and synapses. The degree of hindbrain herniation and the ventricular diameter were measured on magnetic resonance images and volumes of relevant brain and medulla areas were segmented.

Results: Both treatment groups included 5 fetuses and 9 unoperated littermates served as normal controls. The durations for both skin-to-skin (341±31 vs 287±40 minutes; P=.04) and fetal surgery (183±30 vs 128±22; P=.01) were longer for the 2-port approach than for the 3-port approach. There was no significant difference in neuron density in the hippocampus, frontal cortex, and cerebellum. In the caudate nucleus, the neuron count was higher in the 2-port group (965±156 vs 767±92 neurons/mm2; P=.04). There were neither differences in proliferation, astrogliosis, synaptophysin, or myelin. The tip of the cerebellar vermis was closer to the foramen magnum in animals undergoing the 2-port approach than in animals undergoing the 3-port approach (-0.72±0.67 vs -2.47±0.91 mm; P=.009). There was no significant difference in the ratio of the hippocampus, caudate nucleus, or cerebellar volume to body weight. For the spine, no difference was noted in spine volume-to-body weight ratio for the lower (L1-L2), middle (L3-L4), and higher (L5-L6) levels. Compared with controls, in repaired animals, the cerebellar vermis tip laid closer to the foramen magnum, parietal ventricles were enlarged, and medulla volumes were reduced.

Conclusion: In the experimental spina bifida fetal lamb model, a 2-port repair took 40% longer than a 3-port repair. However, there was no indication of any relevant morphologic differences in the fetal brain.

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Vergote Et Al.
American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology MFM November 2023