It is well known that insufficient production of thyroid hormones during the fetal and neonatal period of development may result in permanent brain damage unless treatment with thyroid hormone is instituted very soon after birth. But congenital hypothyroidism is not the only situation in which brain damage may be related to insufficient thyroid function. Cretinism is the most severe manifestation of iodine deficiency disorders found in areas where iodine intake is greatly reduced. Some of the manifestations of cretinism suggest that the insult to the developing brain starts earlier than in the case of congenital hypothyroidism. Hypothyroxinemia of mothers with adequate iodine intake may also leave permanent, though less severe, mental retardation. For these reasons the possible role of maternal transfer of thyroid hormones during early fetal development have been reinvestigated, using the rat to obtain various experimental models. It has been shown that thyroid hormones are found in embryonic tissues before onset of fetal thyroid function and that thyroidectomy of the mother results in delayed development of the concepta. The concentrations of T4 and T3 in embryonic tissues from thyroidectomized dams were undetectable before the onset of fetal thyroid function, and still reduced in some tissues near term, despite the onset of fetal thyroid function. Treatment of control and thyroidectomized dams with methyl-mercaptoimidazole to block fetal thyroid function reduced thyroid hormone concentrations in fetal tissues near term, but this decrease could be partially avoided by infusion of physiological doses of thyroxine to the mothers. Iodine deficiency of the mothers resulted in thyroid hormone deficiency of the developing embryo, which was very marked until term in all tissues including the brain. The results strongly support a role for maternal thyroid hormones in fetal thyroid hormone economy both before and after the onset of the fetal thyroid function, at least in the rat. They also support a role of the hypothyroxinemia of iodine-deficient mothers in initiating the brain damage of the endemic cretin, a damage which would not be corrected once the fetal thyroid becomes active, as iodine-deficiency of the fetus would impair adequate production of hormones by its own thyroid, and maternal transfer would continue to be low.

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