Alcohol consumption during pregnancy found to have transgenerational damaging effect on developing brains

Previous studies confirmed that alcohol consumption can lead to lifelong disabilities in children such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). However, medical doctors only assumed a connection between the mother and the exposed fetus. A transgenerational effect was never studied until now. A new study made by researchers at the University of California, Riverside found that women who drank alcohol while pregnant could not only be putting their unborn child in danger but their great grandchildren as well.

Kelly Huffman, who led the study, said on, “Traditionally, prenatal ethanol exposure (PrEE) from maternal consumption of alcohol, was thought to solely impact directly exposed offspring, the embryo or fetus in the womb. However, we now have evidence that the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure could persist transgenerationally and negatively impact the next-generations of offspring who were never exposed to alcohol.”

To reach this conclusion, Huffman and her team examined mouse models of FASD and tested many behavioral development milestones, along with specific brain regions, across three generations. The first generation displayed expected results, with atypical gene expression and abnormal behavioral deficits. The main discovery of the study though was seen in subsequent, non-exposed generations of mice. These mice displayed the same neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems similar to the first generation.

This multi-level analysis suggests that exposing developing fetuses to alcohol can have long-term and even generational effects. While it is uncertain if these results hold true among humans, Huffman’s team stresses the importance of proper lifestyle and eating habits while pregnant. Understanding the neurodevelopment effects of prenatal alcohol exposure can also prompt the development of better treatments and methods of prevention.

FASD in America

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is not a well-studied condition, as its physical and mental symptoms vary greatly depending on the affected individual. The vast discrepancy in how FASD manifests makes it difficult for medical professionals to properly diagnose the condition. That said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) admits that they do not have an exact count as to how many children have FASD, but estimate that the number may be around  six to nine children out of 1,000. Some experts believe that the number may be even higher, with two to five per 100 school children having some form of FASD.

A CDC report published in 2015 concluded that one in 10 women consumed some form of alcohol during their pregnancy. Those most likely to drink while pregnant were women aged 35 to 44 years old, had a college degree, and were not married. Non-married pregnant women, the group noted, were almost five times more likely to binge drink compared to married pregnant women.

Children exposed to alcohol while in the womb are significantly more at risk of developing FASD. This is because the alcohol that is consumed passes through the placenta and is absorbed by the fetus. Severe exposure to the substance can block vital nutrients and oxygen from getting to fetus’ organs. Doctors have noted that the first three months of pregnancy are the most critical period; however, the American Academy of Pediatrics does caution women that alcohol consumption at any stage of pregnancy is dangerous.

As mentioned, FASD is characterized by a variety of symptoms, although there are a few common problems that can be seen. These include:

  • A smaller than average head
  • Below average height and weight
  • Hyperactivity
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor judgment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Learning disabilities
  • Kidney defects
  • Deformed limbs
  • Mood swings

Mothers who suspect their children may have FASD are encouraged to speak with their physicians immediately. This discussion should include one’s alcohol history. To date, there is no cure for FASD, although certain symptoms may be managed if detected early.

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