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Keywords:

  • myometrium;
  • cervix;
  • electromyographic signals;
  • labor;
  • preterm labor;
  • progesterone;
  • nitric oxide;
  • collagen

Abstract: In this review, we outline studies showing that the uterus (myometrium) and cervix pass through a conditioning step in preparation for labor. This step is not easily identifiable with present methods designed to assess the uterus or cervix. In the uterus, this seemingly irreversible step consists of changes in the electrical properties that make muscle more excitable and responsive and produce forceful contractions. In the cervix, the step consists of softening of the connective tissue components. Progesterone and nitric oxide appear to have important roles in these processes. The progress of labor can be assessed noninvasively using electromyographic (EMG) signals from the uterus (the driving force for contractility) recorded from the abdominal surface. Uterine EMG bursts detected in this manner characterize uterine contractile events during human and animal pregnancy. A low uterine EMG activity, measured transabdominally throughout most of pregnancy, rises dramatically during labor. EMG activity also increases substantially during preterm labor in humans and rats and may be predictive of preterm labor. A quantitative method for assessing the cervix is also described. A collascope estimates cervical collagen content from a fluorescent signal generated when collagen crosslinks are illuminated with an excitation light of about 340 nm. The system has proved useful in rats and humans at various stages of pregnancy and indicates that cervical softening occurs progressively in the last one-third of pregnancy. In rats, collascope readings correlate with resistance measurements made in the isolated cervix, which may help to assess cervical function during pregnancy and indicate controls and treatments.