Fetal Neurosonogaphy: Ultrasound and Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Competition

S Tercanli, F Prüfer
Ultraschall in der Medizin 2016, 37 (6): 555-557
Both in routine diagnostics and detailed, highly specialized workups, major advances have been observed in many areas of ultrasound due to an increase in expertise and improved technology in recent years. This is particularly true in the case of fetal neurosonography 1 2 3 4. Malformations of the CNS together with fetal heart defects are among the most common congenital anomalies. From the embryonic phase to the late third trimester, the CNS undergoes extensive development and maturation processes. The diagnosis of CNS anomalies is therefore primarily dependent on the time at which the examination is performed and the experience of the examiner. The introduction of transvaginal and 3 D ultrasound for evaluating fetal brain structures has made it possible to diagnose pathological findings of the CNS with increasing accuracy 5. The detection rates for CNS anomalies are up to 90 - 95 % depending on the finding 3 5. Today, detailed fetal neurosonography also includes differential diagnostic evaluation of the posterior cranial fossa, the corpus callosum (CC), and the gyri and therefore exceeds the primarily conspicuous, non-specific diagnosis of "ventricular dilation" often occurring as an accompanying symptom 6 7 The article "Prenatal Diagnosis of Corpus Callosum Anomalies" appearing in this issue shows an increase in the frequency of diagnosis and also shows that it is possible to differentiate between complete and partial corpus callosum agenesis and hypoplasia of the corpus callosum with differentiation between isolated and non-isolated cases is possible on ultrasound. In 4 of 44 cases in which both neurosonography and intrauterine MRI were performed, there was a discrepancy between the ultrasound diagnosis and the intrauterine MRI findings. In a comparison of the sonographic diagnoses and the MRI findings, additional pathologies were seen on MRI but not on ultrasound in only 3 of 44 cases. In a further case of CC hypoplasia, the sonographic diagnosis was superior to the MRI findings.Another study appearing in this issue study of CNS anomalies in fetuses with complex clubfoot also showed additionally diagnosed CNS anomalies in 4 cases on MRI. MRI yielded supplementary findings that were not visible on ultrasound in 6 cases. Although the number of cases is small, it was able to be shown, as in other studies, that a certain percentage of CNS anomalies is able to be evaluated on an additional or supplementary basis on MRI.Since intrauterine MRI has been becoming increasingly important in recent years, it is necessary to determine when MRI is indicated. There is general consensus in the literature that MRI is not a screening method for detecting fetal anomalies but should be viewed as a supplementary method to ultrasound 8 9 10. However, MRI application in pregnancy is increasing. Intrauterine MRI is most commonly used in the case of abnormal ultrasound findings regarding the CNS 11 12 13. This includes morphological evaluation of malformations and recently also of acquired hypoxic-ischemic diseases, bleeding and inflammation such as CMV infections. Thoracic and abdominal malformations are also indications for MRI for the evaluation of the lung volume in diaphragmatic defects and in the case of suspicion of esophageal atresia abnormal placentation. Further possible indications for the use of MRI include monochorial multiple pregnancies with a feto-fetal transfusion syndrome (for the evaluation of neurological development) and select cases with known diseases and syndromes 14. The majority of studies for comparing intrauterine MRI to sonographic diagnosis include a small number of cases with limited or no follow-up. Data regarding sensitivities, specificities, and positive predictive values is limited. Many studies simply calculate the difference in percentages on the basis of a small number of cases. The best available data is in regard to CNS anomalies. In one of the few meta-analyses including 34 studies and documented follow-up in 959 fetuses, intrauterine MRI was correct in 91 % of cases which was an increase of 16 % above that achieved by ultrasound 15. This means a significant diagnostic gain for specific issues. However, it must be taken into consideration that the analysis includes a period of 20 years and fetal neurosonography has made major progress in this time. The diagnostic gain would tend to be smaller today. In many studies the level of experience of the ultrasound examiners often remains unclear A possible bias is also that an examiner with less experience determines an indication for intrauterine MRI faster and more frequently and can thus gain more information compared to highly specialized, experienced ultrasound examiners in prenatal centers. Since advanced training in prenatal diagnosis is becoming increasingly difficult due to the transfer of centers to ambulatory practices, there is a certain risk that crash courses or brief internships in ultrasound will result in intrauterine MRI playing an additional role in fetal differential diagnosis and in the confirmation of findings. Because intrauterine MRI is stressful for pregnant women, indiscriminate indication for MRI cannot be recommended even if no fetal damage is to be expected provided that the appropriate safety measures are observed (examination duration of approx. 30 minutes and implementation of MRI after 18 weeks of gestation). After a properly performed ultrasound examination, little additional morphological information can be gained from MRI 16. However, in the case of an unclear sonographic finding or in the event of therapeutic consequences for the care of the fetus or for the birth, MRI is an excellent supplementary method to ultrasound. Concretely, this means ultrasound first. If the finding is not clear, intrauterine MRI can be used as an adjunct method. In this way the cost-benefit ratio can be optimized. The gains achieved by MRI compared to US depend on the quality of the examination and thus on the expertise of the examiner in both methods. The indications for fetal MRI should also follow defined standards based on a protocol adapted to the particular clinical issue 16.

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