August 26, 2008

Alcohol Can Cause Too Much Cell Death

Pregnant women who drink three or four glasses of wine in a short period elevate the risk of birth defects, U.S. researchers said.

Dr. Erhard Bieberich of the Medical College of Georgia Schools of Medicine said the initial signs of fetal alcohol syndrome are slight but classic: facial malformations such as a flat and high upper lip, small eye openings and a short nose.

A few glasses of wine in an hour during the first few weeks of fetal life, typically before a woman knows she's pregnant, increases cell death. Too few cells are then left to properly form the face and possibly the brain and spinal cord, Bieberich said.

"There is always a very delicate balance between newly formed cells and dying cells," Bieberich said in a statement. "It's a very active period of that balance, because usually you develop a surplus of tissue then later melt it back down to acquire a specific shape."

He likes to use the hands as an example of critical melting.

"The digits form because the inter-digital tissue dies. If it did not die, we would have paddles instead of hands with fingers," Bieberich said.