For the first time researchers have found that the human placenta plays an active role in synthesizing serotonin, providing hope for new treatment strategies for cardiovascular disease and mental illness.
Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California's (USC) Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute were behind the groundbreaking findings.
The result offers conclusive evidence that the placenta provides serotonin to the fetal forebrain, not through the mother's blood supply, as theorized for the past 60 years.
"Our research indicates that the placenta actually synthesizes serotonin, and the serotonin is released from the placenta into the fetal bloodstream where it can reach the fetal brain," said lead author Alexandre Bonnin.
"The placenta was seen as a passive organ, but we now know that it has significant synthetic capabilities and has a much more critical role in developmental programming of the fetus than previously thought," he said.
Bonnin's work with Pat Levitt, director of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute and corresponding author on the paper, also invented a unique technology known as a "placentometer" that monitors substances that pass through the mouse placenta from mother to fetus.
This technology can incorporate genetic models of human disease, and could lead to targeted therapies that treat the mother without affecting the fetus, or vice versa.
The study is published in the journal Nature on April 21, 2011.