Hyperthermia as a teratogen: A review of experimental studies and their clinical significance


  • M. J. Edwards

    Corresponding author
    1. Faculty of Veterinary Science, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia
    • Faculty of Veterinary Science, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia
    Search for more papers by this author


Although hyperthermia is teratogenic in birds, all the common laboratory animals, farm animals, and primates and satisfies defined criteria as a teratogen, its study as a human teratogen has been neglected. Homeothermic animals, including humans, can experience body temperature elevations induced by febrile infections, heavy exercise and hot environments which exceed the thresholds (1.5–2.5°C elevation) which are known to cause a syndrome of embryonic resorptions, abortions, and malformations in experimental animals. Hyperthermia is particularly damaging to the central nervous system, and if a threshold exposure occurs at the appropriate stages of embryonic development, exencephaly, anencephaly, encephalocoele, micrencephaly, microphthalmia, neurogenic talipes, and arthrogryposis can be produced in a high proportion of exposed embryos, the incidence and type of defect depending on the species and strain within species, the stage of development, and the severity of hyperthermic exposure. Other defects which can be induced experimentally include exomphalos, hypoplasia of toes and teeth, renal agenesis, vertebral anomalies, maxillary hypoplasia, facial clefting, cataract, coloboma, and heart and vascular defects. Proliferating cells are particularly sensitive to temperature elevations, resulting in arrest of mitotic activity and immediate death of cells in mitosis with threshold elevations (1.5–2.5°C) and delayed death of cells probably in S phase with higher elevations (3.5°C). In general, lower temperature elevations (2.5°C) require longer durations of elevation to cause defects than a simple spike at a higher elevation (4.5°C). The death of cells is largely confined to the brain and in the day 21 guinea pig embryo to the alar regions of the brain. Cell death probably accounts for most of the defects in the central nervous system, but microvascular disturbances leading to leakage, oedema and haemorrhage, placental necrosis, and infarction are other known effects of hyperthermia; and these are probably involved in the pathogenesis of many defects of the heart, limbs, kidneys, and body wall. Recent experiments have demonstrated protection of rat embryos in culture against a known teratogenic exposure by a brief nonteratogenic exposure given at least 15 min earlier. This protection is associated with the synthesis of heat-shock proteins, and temporary arrest of the cell proliferative cycle. Hyperthermia appears to be capable of causing congenital defects in all species and may act alone or synergistically with other agents. With minimally teratogenic doses of heat plus arsenic, lead, or vitamin A, the combined responses with heat have been clearly augmented compared with the additive responses of single treatments. The contribution of hyperthermia to abortions is well documented, and its effect on human birth defects needs careful evaluation.