Hypercholesterolemia in pregnancy is a physiological process required for normal fetal development. In contrast, excessive pregnancy-specific hypercholesterolemia increases the risk of complications, such as preeclampsia. However, the underlying mechanisms are unclear. Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) is a membrane receptor modulated by high cholesterol levels, leading to endothelial dysfunction; but whether excessive hypercholesterolemia in pregnancy activates TLR4 is not known. We hypothesized that a high cholesterol diet (HCD) during pregnancy increases TLR4 activity in uterine arteries, leading to uterine artery dysfunction. Sprague Dawley rats were fed a control diet (n=12) or HCD (n=12) during pregnancy (gestational day 6–20). Vascular function was assessed in main uterine arteries using wire myography (vasodilation to methacholine and vasoconstriction to phenylephrine; with and without inhibitors for mechanistic pathways) and pressure myography (biomechanical properties). Exposure to a HCD during pregnancy increased maternal blood pressure, induced proteinuria, and reduced the fetal-to-placental weight ratio for both sexes. Excessive hypercholesterolemia in pregnancy also impaired vasodilation to methacholine in uterine arteries, whereby at higher doses, methacholine caused vasoconstriction instead of vasodilation in only the HCD group, which was prevented by inhibition of TLR4 or prostaglandin H synthase 1. Endothelial nitric oxide synthase expression and nitric oxide levels were reduced in HCD compared with control dams. Vasoconstriction to phenylephrine and biomechanical properties were similar between groups. In summary, excessive hypercholesterolemia in pregnancy impairs uterine artery function, with TLR4 activation as a key mechanism. Thus, TLR4 may be a target for therapy development to prevent adverse perinatal outcomes in complicated pregnancies.

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