BACKGROUND: Immature gut motility in preterm neonates may be a risk factor for necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). Using preterm pigs as a model for infants, we hypothesized that intestinal dysmotility precedes NEC development.
METHODS: Eighty-five preterm pigs were fed increasing amounts of milk diets to induce NEC lesions, as detected at autopsy on day 5. Gut transit time was determined on day 4 by x-ray imaging after oral intake of contrast solution.
RESULTS: No clinical or radiological signs of NEC were detected on day 4, but macroscopic NEC lesions were recorded in 59% of pigs (n = 50) on day 5. Relative to pigs without NEC (noNEC, n = 35), pigs with small intestinal lesions (siNEC, n = 18) showed delayed stomach emptying time (StEmpty) and time for contrast to reach cecum (ToCecum) already on day 4. Pigs with lesions only in colon (coNEC, n = 20) showed more diarrhea, shorter ToCecum time, but longer small intestinal emptying time (SiEmpty). ToCecum time predicted siNEC and coNEC lesions with a receiver-operator characteristic area under the curve of 78-81%.
CONCLUSIONS: Region-dependent changes in gut transit time is associated with early NEC development in preterm pigs. How gut dysmotility is related to NEC in preterm infants requires further investigations.
IMPACT: Using preterm pigs as a model for preterm infants, we show that gut transit time, using serial x-ray contrast imaging, was changed in individuals with NEC-like lesions before they showed the typical radiological signs of NEC. Thus prolonged transit time across the entire gut was recorded when NEC lesions appeared in the small intestine but not when lesions were detected only in the colon.Until now, recordings of food transit have mainly investigated changes in the upper gut. Using serial x-rays, this study describes food transit across the entire gut and documents a region-dependent effect of NEC lesions on gut transit changes in preterm individuals.The findings provide proof of concept for use of x-ray contrast imaging as a tool to monitor gut transit in preterm pigs as models for infants. Delayed passage across the entire gut may be an early sign of small intestinal NEC, at least in pigs. More studies are needed to confirm relations in infants. In the future, it might be possible to use x-ray contrast imaging in preterm infants to better understand gut motility in relation to early NEC progression and need for medical NEC treatment.