New research sheds light on alcohol’s effects on fetal development

New research sheds light on alcohol’s effects on fetal development

Most women know that it’s a terrible idea to drink alcohol during pregnancy.

Drinking puts the baby at risk of suffering fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or F-A-S-D. This condition can lead to diminished intelligence, altered facial features and problems with learning and behavior.

The good news is F-A-S-D is preventable, but women who aren’t trying to become pregnant may not abstain from drinking. And, if they do become pregnant they may not realize it during the first few weeks.

A study published recently in the journal PLoS ONE suggests that alcohol can harm a fetus’s nervous system in those first few weeks of development.

The study used genetically altered mice that willingly consumed ethyl alcohol.

It’s known that around the eighth day of mouse development, the rudiments of the nervous system undergo important changes. Comparable development in human babies takes place around the fourth week.

So the scientists devised an experiment to determine if alcohol affected the process.

Female mice were impregnated … and during the first eight days of gestation the only water they were given contained 10 percent alcohol.

Four weeks after the baby mice were born, the scientists analyzed their genomes. They found altered expression in 23 genes associated with a brain structure called the hippocampus, which is crucial to formation of long-term memory.

What’s more, M-R-I scans on adult mice exposed to alcohol in the womb showed lingering abnormalities in the hippocampus.

The results don’t prove that the same effects occur when women drink early in pregnancy. But they suggest it may happen.

That’s a sobering thought, and a powerful reminder that alcohol use can have unintended consequences.

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