SPERM FUNCTION TESTS OR FUNCTIONAL ASSAYS
These tests are available only in specialized andrology laboratories. The tests are not standardized thus making interpretation difficult. If used singly, a sperm function test may not be helpful in fertility assessment. They are more predictive if used in combination.
Postcoital (Sims-Huhner) Test
This is the examination of the cervical mucus after coitus and assesses the ability of the sperm to penetrate the cervical mucus. The quality of the cervical mucus varies during the menstrual cycle, becoming more abundant and fluid at the time of ovulation (due to effect of estrogen); this facilitates penetration of the mucus by the spermatozoa. Progesterone in the secretory phase increases viscosity of the mucus. Therefore cervical mucus testing is scheduled just before ovulation (determined by basal body temperature records or follicular sizing by ultrasonography). Postcoital test is the traditional method to detect the cervical factor in infertility. Cervical mucus is aspirated with a syringe shortly before the expected time of ovulation and 2-12 hours after intercourse. Gross and microscopic examinations are carried out to assess the quality of cervical mucus (elasticity and drying pattern) and to evaluate the number and motility of sperms (Box 834.1). If ≥ 10 motile sperms are observed the test is considered as normal. An abnormal test may result from: (a) poor quality of cervical mucus due to wrong judgment of ovulation, cervicitis or treatment with antioestrogens (e.g. Clomid), and (b) absence of motile sperms due to ineffective technique of coitus, lack of ejaculation, poor semen quality, use of coital lubricants that damage the sperm, or presence of antisperm antibodies. Antisperm antibodies cause immotile sperms, or agglutination or clumping of sperms; they may be present in either partner. If cervical factor is present, intrauterine insemination is the popular treatment. The value of the postcoital test is disputed in the medical literature.
Box 834.1 Interpretation of postcoital test
This test can be carried out if semen analysis is normal, and the female partner is ovulating and fallopian tubes are not blocked. It is also done if antisperm antibodies are suspected and male partner refuses semen analysis.
Cervical Mucus Penetration Test
In this test, greatest distance traveled by the sperm in seminal fluid placed and incubated in a capillary tube containing bovine mucus is measured. Majority of fertile men show score >30 mm, while most infertile men show scores <20 mm.
Hamster Egg Penetration Assay
Hamster oocytes are enzymatically treated to remove the outer layers (that inhibit cross-species fertilization). They are then incubated with sperms and observed for penetration rate. It can be reported as (a) Number of eggs penetrated (penetration rate <15% indicates low fertility), or as (b) Number of sperm penetrations per egg (Normal >5). This test detects sperm motility, binding to oocyte, and penetration of oocyte. There is a high incidence of false-negative results.
Hypo-osmotic Swelling of Flagella
This test assesses the functional integrity of the plasma membrane of the sperm by observing curling of flagella in hypo-osmotic conditions.
Computer-assisted Semen Analysis
Computer software measures various characteristics of the spermatozoa; however, its role in predicting fertility potential is not confirmed.
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