Using the latest imaging techniques usually used to map the brain, the complications during pregnancy and the chances of miscarriage can be detected.
The research team has developed 3D images of the cervix, the load bearing organ which lies at the base of the womb and stops a developing baby from descending into the birth canal before the due date.
Around a quarter of miscarriages during the fourth to sixth month of pregnancy (mid-trimester) occur because of weaknesses in the cervix. The research team at the University of Leeds hope by developing a detailed image of its structure, they can develop ways of monitoring women for signs of potential problems before they become pregnant.
MRI of the Cervix
MRI techniques were used to create 3D images of the cervix. This is the first time extremely high-resolution imaging has been used to understand the detailed microstructure of this organ.
James Nott, from the Faculty of Medicine and Health and lead author, said: "A lot of our understanding of the biology of the cervix is rooted in research carried out 50 years ago. By applying the imaging techniques that have been used in the brain, we can get a much clearer understanding of the tissue architecture that gives the cervix its unique biomechanical properties."
The images reveal a fibrous structure running along the upper part of the cervix. The fibers are much more pronounced near to where it joins the womb. The fibers are made of collagen and smooth muscle and form a ring around the upper aspect of the cervical canal.
During pregnancy, these fibers provide a strong supporting barrier - keeping the fetus and amniotic sac in place and preventing micro-organisms from entering the uterus.
The images reveal that these support tissues are less prominent further down the cervix as it joins the birth canal. During labor, the body releases chemicals which result in the cervix opening and allowing the baby to enter the birth canal. But there are medical conditions where earlier in the pregnancy, the cervix fails to support the baby, leading to a miscarriage or premature birth.
Mr. Simpson said: "This study's findings have encouraged us to explore new imaging techniques to check the integrity of these fibers before or during pregnancy in order to identify at-risk mums, intervene earlier, and so prevent late pregnancy loss and pre-term birth."