Alcohol Use During Pregnancy May Lead To Poor Brain Development
December 3, 2013

Alcohol Use During Pregnancy Associated With Poor Brain Development

[ Watch the Video: New Research on Pregnant Mother's Alcohol Consumption ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

A new study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Riverside shows how prenatal exposure to alcohol severely disrupts major features of brain development, leading to increased anxiety and poor motor function.

Researchers discovered prenatal alcohol consumption significantly altered the expression of genes and the development of a network of connections in the neocortex. They found prenatal exposure caused wrong areas of the brain to be connected with each other, which leads to conditions typical in humans with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

“If you consume alcohol when you are pregnant you can disrupt the development of your baby’s brain,” Kelly Huffman, assistant professor of psychology at UC Riverside and lead author of the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, said in a statement. “This research helps us understand how substances like alcohol impact brain development and change behavior.”

She said the findings show how prenatal alcohol exposure generates dramatic changes in the brain, leading to changes in behavior.

“Although this study uses a moderate- to high-dose model, others have shown that even small doses alter development of key receptors in the brain,” Huffman added.

Scientists have known that alcohol exposure from a mother’s consumption impacts brain and cognitive development in the child. However, studies have not demonstrated a connection between the exposure and disruption of neural networks that potentially leads to changes in behavior.

The team found dramatic changes in intraneocortical connections between the frontal, somatosensory and visual cortex in mice born to mothers who consumed ethanol during pregnancy. The changes were severe in the frontal cortex, which regulates motor skill learning, decision making, planning, judgement, attention, risk-taking, executive function and sociality.

The team created an atlas of neocortex for the study, identifying the development of regions, gene expression and the cortical circuit over time.

Children diagnosed with FASD may have facial deformities and can exhibit cognitive, behavioral and motor deficits from alcohol-related neurobiological damage in early development. Those deficits may include learning disabilities, reduced intelligence, mental retardation and anxiety or depression. Mild forms of FASD produce behavioral issues like hyperactivity, hyperirritability and attention problems.

“I was surprised that the result of alcohol exposure was quite dramatic,” Huffman said in a statement. “We found elevated levels of anxiety, disengaged behavior, and difficulty with fine motor coordination tasks. These are the kinds of things you see in children with FASD.”

Next, the researchers plan to study whether deficits related to prenatal exposure to alcohol continue in subsequent generations. Huffman said women who are pregnant or who are trying to get pregnant should abstain from drinking alcohol altogether.

“Would you put whiskey in your baby’s bottle? Drinking during pregnancy is not that much different,” she said. “If you ask me if you have three glasses of wine during pregnancy will your child have FASD, I would say probably not. If you ask if there will be changes in the brain, I would say, probably. There is no safe level of drinking during pregnancy.”