Impairment of Fetal Growth Potential and Adverse Neurological Outcomes

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Impairment of Fetal Growth Potential and Adverse Neurological Outcomes

R. Bukowski, MD, PhD

The University of Texas Medical Branch

Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine

Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology

Galveston, Texas

Adverse neurological outcomes carry, beside perinatal mortatlity the larges burden for the family, the obstetrician and the society. They have not been well defined and are difficult to investigate. However, a group of disorders including cerebral palsy, isolated mental retardation and seizure disorders well represents adverse neurological outcomes from the perspective of patients and health care providers.
Neonatal Encephalopathy

These long term adverse neurological outcomes are frequently preceded by neonatal encephalopathy manifested by difficulty in initiating and maintaining respiration, depression of tone and reflexes, subnormal level of consciousness or seizures in the immediate postpartum period. A large body of evidence indicates that neonatal encephalopathy (NE) constitutes a necessary preceding step for the development of permanent neurological injury. If obstetrical complications are not followed by neonatal encephalopathy the risk of permanent neurological injury is not increased.;1-4

Current evidence clearly indicates that the vast majority of NEs and cerebral palsies are the result of antepartum events. Only about 8 % of cerebral palsies and 4 - 30 % of neonatal encephalopathies can be attributed to an adverse intrapartum event.5;6; Recently, the International Cerebral Palsy Task Force defined criteria to be used for attributing a NE to an intrapartum event.7 A number of antepartum adverse events which may result in NE have been identified, but many more remain unknown, making ascertainment of their total effect very difficult.8
It is likely that antenatal events severe enough to permanently impair fetal neurological development would also impair its growth.9 “Growth potential” is a measure of the optimal weight an individual fetus ought to achieve in the absence of pathological conditions. It is calculated individually for each fetus, reflecting its achieved proportion of individual optimal weight, rather than relation of the fetal weight to the population norms as is traditionally done using birthweight nomograms. Growth potential impairment, therefore, reflects the entire accumulation of genetic and environmental factors that operated upon the individual fetus during the course of pregnancy. Such factors have to be of a significant magnitude to decrease fetal growth from the optimum, 50th percentile of the growth potential, to the individual growth potential below 10th percentile.
The purpose of this study was to determine the frequency of growth impairment in fetuses with NE at or near term attributed to intrapartum or antepartum adverse events, and in gestational age matched normal controls.

In a retrospective case control design we derived cases from a population of 129 singleton pregnancies delivered from January 1994 to December 1999 and diagnosed with neonatal asphyxia, or hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy

From the above group we identified neonates meeting criteria for neonatal encephalopathy based on recommendations of the International Cerebral Palsy Task Force.7 Patients were included if they demonstrated seizures and or difficulty in initiating or maintaining respiration within the first week of life, and were delivered at 34 weeks of pregnancy or later.

Criteria for an Acute Intrapartum Hypoxic Event

From such defined neonatal encephalopathy group, we identified two sub-groups of cases. One composed of neonates meeting criteria for an acute intrapartum hypoxic event as a cause for encephalopathy (n = 21) and another group composed of neonates with encephalopathy who did not meet these criteria (n = 20). For controls, we selected a group of 42 neonates without antepartum or perinatal complications matched for gestational age at delivery with cases meeting criteria for intrapartum hypoxic event at the ratio of 2:1. The controls were selected from a randomly identified pool of normal pregnancies without medical and obstetrical complications as previously described.10
The criteria used for acute intrapartum hypoxic event were those proposed by the International Cerebral Palsy Task Force.7 The diagnosis included an umbilical artery pH less then 7.00 and base deficit grater or equal to 12 mmol/l in addition to 3 or more of the following 5 criteria: 1) sentinel hypoxic event such as: ruptured uterus, placental abruption, cord prolapse or amniotic fluid embolism; 2) sudden and sustained deterioration of the fetal heart rate tracing; 3) Apgar score of 0 to 6 for 5 minutes or longer; 4) early evidence of multi-system involvement as evidenced by severe abnormalities of cardiovascular, respiratory, renal or liver function; 5) early evidence of acute cerebral abnormality on head ultrasound, computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging.

Growth Potential

For each fetus we calculated the achieved percentile of the individual growth potential. The percentile of the growth potential is a measure of the proportion of the individual optimal weight a fetus ought to achieve in the absence of pathological conditions. It is calculated in three major steps.
First, GROW v.2 software developed by and based on the formula published by Gardosi et al. was used to generate an individual optimal term birthweight for each fetus.11 The individual optimal term birthweight is based on 6 independent factors (maternal weight at the first prenatal visit, height, parity, ethnicity, fetal gender and gestational age) identified as determining fetal weight from multivariate logistic regression analysis of 40,000 uncomplicated term pregnancies.
In the second step, a curve of the optimal growth as a function of gestational age is extrapolated for each fetus from its calculated optimal birthweight at term. The curve is created by dividing individual term optimal weight into daily fetal weight gains using Hadlock’s fetal weight formula transformed into a proportionality equation. The proportionality equation expresses percent of the term weight as a function of gestational age.
Finally, percentiles of the individual optimal weight are calculated for each gestational age by applying the variation in term weights expressed in % of the mean (coefficient of variation) to other gestational ages. A comparison of the actual birthweight with such derived norms for gestational ages provides the percentile achieved of the optimal weight for each fetus, a reflection of its growth potential.
In addition to the individual percentile of growth potential, the population-based percentile birthweight was calculated for each fetus using norms derived from more than 3 million deliveries in the United States in 1991.12
The proportions of neonates with growth potential impairment and small for gestational age were compared between the three groups using Chi-square test with Bonferoni correction for multiple comparisons. Multivariate logistic regression and contingency table were used to evaluate the effect of birthweight and growth potential impairments, and gestational age between the groups. P less than 0.05 denoted statistical significance.

The characteristics of the study population in the three groups ( I - NE attributable to an intrapartum event, II – NE not attributable to an intrapartum event and III – controls) are displayed in Table I. There were no significant differences in the factors determining the growth potential with the exception of higher parity in group I and slightly lower median birthweight in group - II.

A larger proportion of patients in groups I and II demonstrated severe impairment of the individual growth potential below 10th percentile. . Conversely, the proportions of patients with the growth potential above 50th percentile were not significantly different (Table II). The odds ratios [95% CI] for the growth potential below 10th percentile in group I (21 [2-114]) and II (18 [2-103]) were not significantly different. After adjusting for gestational age and birthweight using logistic regression the OR (95% CI) were 118 (11-1324) and 35 (3-408), respectively. Comparison of birthweight percentiles using population norms rather than individualized growth potential demonstrated no statistically significant differences between cases and controls (Table III).
Thirty three percent (7/21) of neonates with encephalopathy due to intrapartum hypoxia had growth potential below 10th percentile. However, none of the patients with neonatal encephalopathy attributable to the intrapartum hypoxic event had birthweight below 10th percentile without impairment of their growth potential. The interaction among growth potential, birthweight percentiles, and gestational age is demonstrated as a 3-D plane. No interaction would result in a straight plane tilted 45o. Displacement of the darkest band representing GP <10 percentile to the right along the birthweight axis demonstrates that a large proportion of these growth potential impaired neonates had normal birthweight percentiles. Logistic regression analysis demonstrated that the association between growth potential impairment and encephalopathy was independent of birthweight and gestational age (adjusted p=0.002).

At least one third of the neonates with encephalopathy demonstrate severe (< 10th percentile) impairment of their individually calculated growth potential. The percentile achieved by a given fetus, therefore reflects the degree of impairment compared to its own potential rather than to the norms for a population, as done for birthweight nomograms. Unlike impairment of birthweight, impairment of the growth potential avoids including fetuses who grow normally but are below the 10th percentile of the birthweight for the population. It also avoids missing ones who, although above a given cut off of birthweight impairment, are deficient in their rate of growth. Since optimum growth should occur along the 50th percentile, and lower percentiles reflect impairment of the individual potential, rather than a position in the distribution of the population, the traditional cut-off of 10th percentile may not be appropriate. A higher cutoff may more accurately identify fetuses with growth impairment, and may result in even higher proportion of growth impairment among fetuses with NE.

The growth potential is an indicator of a whole accumulation of genetic and environmental influences that have operated upon the fetus. Therefore, its impairment reflects the sum of pathological conditions that operated antepartum and impaired its growth. The pathological conditions that stunt fetal growth are likely to also injure the fetal central nervous system.9;13 Strong association between NE and impairment of the growth potential confirms prior observations that the majority of NE and cerebral palsies are the results of antepartum factors.8
Large cohort studies demonstrated that only between 4 and 30 % of NE can be attributed to the adverse hypoxic intrapartum event.6;14; Using criteria of the International Cerebral Palsy Task Force to define this group we demonstrated that at least one third of this small group of NE attributed to intrapartum hypoxic events had severe antepartum injury resulting in profound impairment of their growth. As the cut-off for impairment of the growth potential is likely to be higher then 10th percentile this proportion of NE might be even significantly larger.

Use of population based birthweight norms also demonstrated increased prevalence of fetuses below the 10th percentile in both groups with neonatal encephalopathy. The increase did not achieve statistical significance, likely due to small numbers, which confirms that growth potential better than population birthweight norms identifies the adverse course of pregnancy. The wide confidence intervals of the odds ratios in tables 2 and 3 reflect the small sample sizes. Narrower confidence intervals would require larger number of cases of NNE, which is fortunately a very rare outcome.

Comparison of the prevalence of GP impairment between NE attributed to intrapartum event and ones not associated with such an event and therefore likely to be a result of antepartum insult, indicates that two alternative situations could occur. First the GP impairment is a marker of a causative insult and the prevalence of the GP impairment should be similar in both NE groups. In the second situation GP impairment is a predisposing factor for a causative insult and NE would occur only in a subset of patients in whom a combination of a GP impairment and a causative insult took place. Therefore the incidence of the GP impairment would be lower in the group of NE attributed to an intrapartum event as not all patients with GP impairment, but only the ones in whom it was associated with a causative intrapartum insult would develop encephalopathy. The frequencies and severity of the growth potential impairment in both NE groups were surprisingly similar in our study, indicating that antepartum insult had a direct effect on the occurrence of NE, and that the effect of the intrapartum event was not additive.

While our study design does not allow definite resolution of this issue, observations regarding the impairment of growth in the cases with or without intrapartum events are highly suggestive and encourage further research in this area.

Cerebral palsy

Long term neurological outcomes of neonates are associated with impairment of fetal growth impairment. In a population based case control study in Sweden of 298 children with cerebral palsy and 596 controls, Jacobsson et al demonstrated that individualized growth potential norms predict cerebral palsy better than local population norms. The achieved growth potential of 1-5 percentile and <1 percentile was statistically significantly associated with cerebral palsy with OR= 3.2 and 5.2, respectively (personal communication).

Intelligence quotient

The impairment of fetal growth potential appears also to have an adverse effect on cognitive function in children. In a cohort of 676 high risk pregnancies, with early second trimester ultrasonographic gestational age dating, we calculated achieved proportion of the individual growth potential at delivery and related it to the Intelligence Quotient at age 5 years 75. Fetuses with growth potential impairment < 10th percentile had IQ’s significantly lower than those with GP > 10th percentile [(mean +/- SD) 79 +/-12 vs. 83+/-12, P < 0.0001]. In multivariate analysis this effect remained significant after adjusting for a range of confounding factors: maternal receptive language skills (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test), maternal age, smoking, parental educational level (completed grade), home environment (Home Screening Questionnaire), attendance at preschool, gestational age at delivery, occurrence of preterm delivery <34 weeks and birthweight. Only maternal receptive language skills, home environment and impairment of individual growth potential were independently and significantly associated with Intelligence Quotient

Table I. Variables determining growth potential in cases and controls. Data presented as median [interquartile range] or number.


n = 42


n = 21


n = 20


Height (cm)

160.0 [157-165]

157.5 [154-162]

162.6 [158-168]


Weight (kg)

65.5 [54-79]

68.1 [61-79]

67.5 [40-110]



1.0 [0-2]

2.0 [1-3]

0 [0-2]




















Fetal gender










Birthweight (g)

3300 [3065-3576]




GA at delivery (weeks)

39.2 [37.6-40.1]

39.0 [37.8-40.1]

36.7 [34.4-40.]


Table II. Proportions of cases and controls in different percentile groups of their individual growth potential. Data presented as number (%) and Odds ratio (95% confidence interval).

Percentile Growth Potential


n (%)


n (%)

OR (95% CI)


n (%)

OR (95% CI)


1 (2.4)

7 (33.3)

20.5 (2.2-114.0)

6 (30.0)

17.6 (1.8-102.5)


18 (42.9)

11 (52.4)

1.5 (0.5-4.8)

11 (55.0)

1.6 (0.5-5.5)


37 (88.1)

16 (76.2)

0.4 (0.1-2.1)

14 (70.0)

0.3 (0.1-1.4)

Table III. Proportions of cases and controls in different percentile groups using standard norms. Data presented as number (%) and Odds ratio (95% confidence interval).




n (%)


n (%)

OR (95% CI)


n (%)

OR (95% CI)


1 (2.4)

4 (19.0)

9.6 (0.9-67.2)

4 (20.0)

10.3 (0.9-70.7)


22 (52.4)

11 (52.4)

1.0 (0.3-3.2)

14 (70.0)

2.1 (0.6-7.7)


39 (92.9)

18 (85.7)

0.5 (0.1-3.3)

18 (90.0)

0.7 (0.1-4.5)


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