Design-based stereology is the gold standard for obtaining unbiased quantitative morphological data on volume, surface area, and length, as well as the number of tissues, cells or organelles. In cardiac research, the introduction of a stereological method to unbiasedly estimate the number of cardiomyocytes has considerably increased the use of stereology. Since its original description, various modifications to this method have been described. A particular field in which this method has been employed is the normal developmental life cycle of cardiomyocytes after birth, and particularly the question of when, during postnatal development, cardiomyocytes lose their capacity to divide and proliferate, and thus their inherent regenerative ability. This field is directly related to a second major application of stereology in recent years, addressing the question of what consequences intrauterine growth restriction has on the development of the heart, particularly of cardiomyocytes. Advances have also been made regarding the quantification of nerve fibers and collagen deposition as measures of heart innervation and fibrosis. In the present review article, we highlight the methodological progress made in the last 20 years and demonstrate how stereology has helped to gain insight into the process of normal cardiac development, and how it is affected by intrauterine growth restriction.
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