We've begun to accept that the mammalian placenta is more than a passive sac of nutrients allowing mommy to effectively eat for two: It's an active, fully functional organ. Stanford research, for example, has examined the crucial role that placental hormones play in the future baby's health and behavior. And now, as Nature News' Zoë Corbyn reports, the placenta has been shown to be intrinsically linked to the fetal hypothalamus and capable of changing its form in order to fit the growing baby's needs.
In a new study, soon to appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers observed pregnant mice under starvation circumstances. The mice's placentas automatically switched into gear, breaking down their own tissues in order to continue providing a steady supply of nutrients to the fetus within and protecting its developing hypothalamus. The placenta's skill in protecting the fetus went even further than providing continued nutrition: As Corbyn explains, the placenta was also able to protect the mouse fetuses from potential genetic damage (which would have permanent effects on the hypothalamus) during the starvation period.
The experiment wouldn't be easy to reproduce in humans (for obvious ethical reasons). However, as Corbyn writes, one researcher wonders if measuring levels of certain neural genes in a human placenta after birth could provide clues into the baby's brain function.
Previously: Program focuses on the treatment of placental disorders
Photo by Lunar Caustic