R Woitek, G Kasprian, C Lindner, F Stuhr, M Weber, V Schöpf, PC Brugger, U Asenbaum, J Furtner, D Bettelheim, R Seidl, D Prayer
OBJECTIVES: Eye movements are the physical expression of upper fetal brainstem function. Our aim was to identify and differentiate specific types of fetal eye movement patterns using dynamic MRI sequences. Their occurrence as well as the presence of conjugated eyeball motion and consistently parallel eyeball position was systematically analyzed. METHODS: Dynamic SSFP sequences were acquired in 72 singleton fetuses (17-40 GW, three age groups [17-23 GW, 24-32 GW, 33-40 GW]). Fetal eye movements were evaluated according to a modified classification originally published by Birnholz (1981): Type 0: no eye movements; Type I: single transient deviations; Type Ia: fast deviation, slower reposition; Type Ib: fast deviation, fast reposition; Type II: single prolonged eye movements; Type III: complex sequences; and Type IV: nystagmoid. RESULTS: In 95.8% of fetuses, the evaluation of eye movements was possible using MRI, with a mean acquisition time of 70 seconds. Due to head motion, 4.2% of the fetuses and 20.1% of all dynamic SSFP sequences were excluded. Eye movements were observed in 45 fetuses (65.2%). Significant differences between the age groups were found for Type I (p = 0.03), Type Ia (p = 0.031), and Type IV eye movements (p = 0.033). Consistently parallel bulbs were found in 27.3-45%. CONCLUSIONS: In human fetuses, different eye movement patterns can be identified and described by MRI in utero. In addition to the originally classified eye movement patterns, a novel subtype has been observed, which apparently characterizes an important step in fetal brainstem development. We evaluated, for the first time, eyeball position in fetuses. Ultimately, the assessment of fetal eye movements by MRI yields the potential to identify early signs of brainstem dysfunction, as encountered in brain malformations such as Chiari II or molar tooth malformations.