Research at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California's (USC) Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute shows for the first time that the human placenta plays an active role in synthesizing serotonin, paving the way to new treatment strategies that could mitigate health impacts such as cardiovascular disease and mental illness. The groundbreaking findings, conducted with researchers from Vanderbilt University as part of a Silvio Conte Center of Excellence grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, offer conclusive evidence that the placenta provides serotonin to the fetal forebrain, not through the mother's blood supply, as theorized for the past 60 years. The research was published in Nature on April 21, 2011. "Our research indicates that the placenta actually synthesizes serotonin, and the serotonin is released from the placenta into the fetal bloodstream where it can reach the fetal brain," said lead author Dr. Alexandre Bonnin. "The placenta was seen as a passive organ, but we now know that it has significant synthetic capabilities and has a much more critical role in developmental programming of the fetus than previously thought.” Dr. Bonnin's work with Dr. Pat Levitt, director of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute and corresponding author on the paper, included the invention of a unique technology known as a "placentometer" that monitors substances that pass through the mouse placenta from mother to fetus. This technology can incorporate genetic models of human disease, and could lead to targeted therapies that treat the mother without affecting the fetus, or vice versa. "The findings by Dr.
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