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B. Treating Spina Bifida In Utero

Narrator: This is Science Today. Doctors are now using magnetic resonsance imaging to get a better look at fetal brain development. Jim Barkovich, a professor of radiology and neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, says this can be used to detect abnormalities, including the nation's most common disabling birth defect - spina bifida.

Barkovich: In spina bifida, the neural tube doesn't completely close. The neural tissue is still continuous, with the skin on either side and the fluid in the spinal canal pushes it up above the level of the skin.

Narrator: Neurosurgeons cut these connections and mold the tissue into the form of a tube. It's a procedure that's now being done in utero.

Barkovich: This is an important step because continued exposure to the amniotic fluid while in the uterus causes the nerve cells to degenerate. So there's hope among the fetal surgery team here at UCSF that by closing this neural tube defect before the baby is born, we can minimize the amount of neurologic deficit that these children have.

Narrator: For Science Today, I'm Larissa Branin.