OBJECTIVE: Periventricular leukomalacia, a common brain white matter lesion in preterm neonates, is a major risk factor for cerebral palsy. Epidemiologic studies have demonstrated an association between infection and periventricular leukomalacia. The purpose of this study was to determine whether ascending intrauterine infection could cause brain white matter lesions in the fetal rabbit. STUDY DESIGN: Rabbits with timed pregnancies underwent hysteroscopy at 20 to 21 days of gestation (70\%). Animals were allocated in a ratio of 2:1 for inoculation with either Escherichia coli (0.2 ml containing 10(3) to 10(4) colony-forming units) or sterile saline solution. Both groups were treated with ampicillin-sulbactam (Unasyn, 100 mg/kg per day; Pfizer, Seoul) every 8 hours until they were killed 5 to 6 days after hysteroscopy. Histologic examination of the placentas and fetal brains was conducted. RESULTS: Forty-five animals underwent hysteroscopy; 31 were inoculated with E. coli and 14 with sterile saline solution. At the time the animals were killed, the rate of intrauterine infection was higher and there were fewer live fetuses in the E. coli-inoculated animals than in the saline solution group. Histologic evidence of brain white matter damage was identified in 12 fetuses born to 10 E. coli-inoculated rabbits but none in the saline solution group (p < 0.05). All rabbits with brain white matter lesions had evidence of intrauterine infection. Evidence of white matter damage included increased karyorrhexis, rarefaction, and disorganization of white matter. Apoptosis was demonstrated in areas of white matter damage by immunohistochemical studies. CONCLUSION: Experimental ascending intrauterine infection can cause fetal brain white matter lesions.