BACKGROUND Congenital hypothyroidism is known to be associated with mental retardation which, if recognized promptly, is largely prevented by thyroid hormone replacement. Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) is a major cause of perinatal mortality and morbidity, and is also associated with neurodevelopmental delay. Fetuses with IUGR have reduced circulating concentrations of free thyroxine (T4) and free triiodothyronine (T3), leading to the hypothesis that a reduction in the tissue effects of thyroid hormones in the central nervous system (CNS) may contribute to neurodevelopmental morbidity. Since thyroid hormone effects are mediated through binding to specific nuclear thyroid hormone receptors (TRs), we have defined the pattern of TR isoform expression in the CNS throughout normal human development and have compared TR expression in the CNS of normal fetuses with those affected by IUGR. METHODS Samples of normal human fetal brain from first and second trimesters were obtained at surgical termination of pregnancy. Appropriately grown and third trimester fetuses affected by Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) were also investigated after unexplained stillbirth at post mortem examination. Reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) was used to examine the expression of TR isoform mRNAs in frozen cerebral cortex from 10 to 16 weeks gestation. TR protein expression in human fetal brains (both cerebral hemispheres and cerebellum) was also examined in formalin fixed sections and expression of TR alpha1, alpha2, beta1 and beta2 isoforms being defined using semiquantitative immunocytochemistry. RESULTS RT-PCR revealed the presence of mRNAs encoding TR alpha1, beta1 and beta2 isoforms and the nonfunctional TRalpha2 variant in the fetal cerebral cortex from week 10 of human pregnancy. Immunostaining of the fetal brain revealed TR alpha1 and alpha2 protein from week 11 of human gestation. Expression of all TR isoform proteins was largely confined to the pyramidal neurones of the cerebral cortex and the Purkinje cells of the cerebellum with increasing receptor expression evident with gestational age. Semiquantitative observer scoring showed that by the second trimester, there was a marked increase in the proportion of pyramidal and Purkinje cells expressing TR isoforms, while by the third trimester, all these cells immunostained. Comparison of TR immunostaining in the cerebral cortex and cerebellum from IUGR fetuses (n = 18) matched for gestational age to normal fetuses revealed a lower intensity of expression of all the TR isoforms confirmed by observer scoring and quantification using TR protein immunofluoresence (P<0.01). CONCLUSIONS Our findings indicate both pre- and post-translational expression of TR alpha and beta isoforms in the cerebral cortex of first trimester fetuses. These findings support the view that the transplacental passage of thyroid hormone in early gestation may be critical to neurological development. Our finding that in severe IUGR the expression of TR isoforms in the human fetal cerebral cortex and cerebellum was significantly reduced, in association with reduced circulating thyroid hormone concentrations indicate that changes in free ligand and receptors may affect CNS development. These findings should prompt further investigation of the potential therapeutic role of peripartum thyroid hormone treatment.