Screening tests for Down’s syndrome in first 24 weeks of pregnancy

Down's syndrome (also known as Down's or Trisomy 21) is an incurable genetic disorder that causes significant physical and mental health problems, and disabilities. However, there is wide variation in how Down's affects people. Some individuals are severely affected whilst others have mild problems and are able to lead relatively normal lives. There is no way of predicting how badly a baby might be affected.

Expectant parents are given the choice to be tested for Down’s during pregnancy to assist them in making decisions. If a mother is carrying a baby with Down’s, then there is the decision about whether to terminate or continue with the pregnancy. The information offers parents the opportunity to plan for life with a Down’s child.

The most accurate tests for Down’s involve testing fluid from around the baby (amniocentesis) or tissue from the placenta (chorionic villus sampling (CVS)) for the abnormal chromosomes associated with Down’s. Both these tests involve inserting needles through the mother's abdomen and are known to increase the risk of miscarriage. Thus the tests are not suitable for offering to all pregnant women. Rather, tests that measure markers in the mother’s blood, urine or on ultrasound scans of the baby are used for screening. These screening tests are not perfect, they can miss cases of Down’s and also give a ‘high risk’ test results to a number of women whose babies are not affected by Down’s. Thus pregnancies identified as ‘high risk’ using these screening tests require further testing using amniocentesis (from 15 weeks' gestation) or CVS (from 10 + 0 to 13 + 6 weeks' gestation) to confirm a diagnosis of Down’s.

What we did
The aim of this review was to find out which of the first trimester ultrasound screening tests, with or without first trimester serum tests done during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy are the most accurate at predicting the risk of a pregnancy being affected by Down's. We looked at 11 different ultrasound markers and 12 different serum markers that can be used alone, in ratios or in combination, taken before 14 weeks' gestation, thus creating 60 screening tests for Down’s. We found 126 studies, involving 1,604,040 fetuses (including 8454 fetuses affected by Down's syndrome).

What we found
For the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, the evidence supports the use of first trimester ultrasound tests in combination with two serum (blood) markers - especially pregnancy-associated plasma protein A (PAPP-A) and free beta human chorionic gonadotrophin (ßhCG) - and maternal age, for Down's syndrome screening. In general, these tests are better than ultrasound markers on their own. They detect nine out of 10 pregnancies affected by Down's syndrome. Five per cent of women undertaking the test will have a high risk test result, however the majority of these pregnancies will not be affected by Down's syndrome.

Other important information to consider
The ultrasound tests themselves have no adverse effects for the woman, blood tests can cause discomfort, bruising and rarely infection. However some women who have a ‘high risk’ screening test result, and are given amniocentesis or CVS have a risk of miscarrying a baby unaffected by Down’s. Parents will need to weigh up this risk when deciding whether or not to have an amniocentesis or CVS following a ‘high risk’ screening test result.

Authors' conclusions: 

Test strategies that combine ultrasound markers with serum markers, especially PAPP-A and free ßhCG, and maternal age were significantly better than those involving only ultrasound markers (with or without maternal age) except nasal bone. They detect about nine out of 10 Down’s affected pregnancies for a fixed 5% FPR. Although the absence of nasal bone appeared to have a high diagnostic accuracy, only five out of 10 affected Down's pregnancies were detected at a 1% FPR.

Read the full abstract...

Down's syndrome occurs when a person has three, rather than two copies of chromosome 21; or the specific area of chromosome 21 implicated in causing Down's syndrome. It is the commonest congenital cause of mental disability and also leads to numerous metabolic and structural problems. It can be life-threatening, or lead to considerable ill health, although some individuals have only mild problems and can lead relatively normal lives. Having a baby with Down’s syndrome is likely to have a significant impact on family life.

Non-invasive screening based on biochemical analysis of maternal serum or urine, or fetal ultrasound measurements, allows estimates of the risk of a pregnancy being affected and provides information to guide decisions about definitive testing.

Before agreeing to screening tests, parents need to be fully informed about the risks, benefits and possible consequences of such a test. This includes subsequent choices for further tests they may face, and the implications of both false positive and false negative screening tests (i.e. invasive diagnostic testing, and the possibility that a miscarried fetus may be chromosomally normal). The decisions that may be faced by expectant parents inevitably engender a high level of anxiety at all stages of the screening process, and the outcomes of screening can be associated with considerable physical and psychological morbidity. No screening test can predict the severity of problems a person with Down's syndrome will have.


To estimate and compare the accuracy of first trimester ultrasound markers alone, and in combination with first trimester serum tests for the detection of Down’s syndrome.

Search strategy: 

We carried out extensive literature searches including MEDLINE (1980 to 25 August 2011), Embase (1980 to 25 August 2011), BIOSIS via EDINA (1985 to 25 August 2011), CINAHL via OVID (1982 to 25 August 2011), and The Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (the Cochrane Library 2011, Issue 7). We checked reference lists and published review articles for additional potentially relevant studies.

Selection criteria: 

Studies evaluating tests of first trimester ultrasound screening, alone or in combination with first trimester serum tests (up to 14 weeks' gestation) for Down's syndrome, compared with a reference standard, either chromosomal verification or macroscopic postnatal inspection.

Data collection and analysis: 

Data were extracted as test positive/test negative results for Down's and non-Down's pregnancies allowing estimation of detection rates (sensitivity) and false positive rates (1-specificity). We performed quality assessment according to QUADAS criteria. We used hierarchical summary ROC meta-analytical methods to analyse test performance and compare test accuracy. Analysis of studies allowing direct comparison between tests was undertaken. We investigated the impact of maternal age on test performance in subgroup analyses.

Main results: 

We included 126 studies (152 publications) involving 1,604,040 fetuses (including 8454 Down's syndrome cases). Studies were generally good quality, although differential verification was common with invasive testing of only high-risk pregnancies. Sixty test combinations were evaluated formed from combinations of 11 different ultrasound markers (nuchal translucency (NT), nasal bone, ductus venosus Doppler, maxillary bone length, fetal heart rate, aberrant right subclavian artery, frontomaxillary facial angle, presence of mitral gap, tricuspid regurgitation, tricuspid blood flow and iliac angle 90 degrees); 12 serum tests (inhibin A, alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), free beta human chorionic gonadotrophin (ßhCG), total hCG, pregnancy-associated plasma protein A (PAPP-A), unconjugated oestriol (uE3), disintegrin and metalloprotease 12 (ADAM 12), placental growth factor (PlGF), placental growth hormone (PGH), invasive trophoblast antigen (ITA) (synonymous with hyperglycosylated hCG), growth hormone binding protein (GHBP) and placental protein 13 (PP13)); and maternal age. The most frequently evaluated serum markers in combination with ultrasound markers were PAPP-A and free ßhCG.

Comparisons of the 10 most frequently evaluated test strategies showed that a combined NT, PAPP-A, free ßhCG and maternal age test strategy significantly outperformed ultrasound markers alone (with or without maternal age) except nasal bone, detecting about nine out of every 10 Down's syndrome pregnancies at a 5% false positive rate (FPR). In both direct and indirect comparisons, the combined NT, PAPP-A, free ßhCG and maternal age test strategy showed superior diagnostic accuracy to an NT and maternal age test strategy (P < 0.0001). Based on the indirect comparison of all available studies for the two tests, the sensitivity (95% confidence interval) estimated at a 5% FPR for the combined NT, PAPP-A, free ßhCG and maternal age test strategy (69 studies; 1,173,853 fetuses including 6010 with Down's syndrome) was 87% (86 to 89) and for the NT and maternal age test strategy (50 studies; 530,874 fetuses including 2701 Down's syndrome pregnancies) was 71% (66 to 75). Combinations of NT with other ultrasound markers, PAPP-A and free ßhCG were evaluated in one or two studies and showed sensitivities of more than 90% and specificities of more than 95%.

High-risk populations (defined before screening was done, mainly due to advanced maternal age of 35 years or more, or previous pregnancies affected with Down's syndrome) showed lower detection rates compared to routine screening populations at a 5% FPR. Women who miscarried in the over 35 group were more likely to have been offered an invasive test to verify a negative screening results, whereas those under 35 were usually not offered invasive testing for a negative screening result. Pregnancy loss in women under 35 therefore leads to under-ascertainment of screening results, potentially missing a proportion of affected pregnancies and affecting test sensitivity. Conversely, for the NT, PAPP-A, free ßhCG and maternal age test strategy, detection rates and false positive rates increased with maternal age in the five studies that provided data separately for the subset of women aged 35 years or more.