Prenatal alcohol exposure disrupts neurodevelopment in children

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) is an umbrella term for a wide range of problems that can develop in a child due to the drinking habit of the mother during pregnancy. Prenatal exposure to alcohol, even in low amounts, can cause developmental abnormalities, such as growth retardation, facial deformities, organ damages, etc., and significant cognitive deficits that are responsible for physical, mental, behavioral and social challenges in an individual’s life.

Alcohol is the leading preventable cause of birth defects and neurodevelopmental disorders in the United States. When a fetus is exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, his or her yet to fully mature liver is unable to process, breakdown or egest alcohol easily. This causes significant damage to the baby’s underdeveloped organs and brain, especially if the mother indulges in drinking in the first trimester of her pregnancy. This trimester is a crucial phase when the brain of the baby starts developing.

It is also difficult to identify FASD in infants due to the unavailability of a lab test that can diagnose these disorders. In addition, FASDs aren’t curable disorders; however, early diagnosis and treatment improve the child’s overall development.

Alcohol disrupts protective mechanisms of a fetus’s brain

A study was conducted that was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and published in Nature Communications which found that prenatal exposure to even low doses of alcohol causes severe and highly variable deficits in the brain of a fetus. The study that was conducted on lab rats indicates the erratic nature of deficits that may develop due to the inconsistencies in the activation of several protective mechanisms when the fetal brain reacts to alcohol and other toxic substances.

Kazue Hashimoto-Torii, Ph.D., of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and the study’s senior author alludes to a certain mechanism known as the Heat Shock Factor 1 (Hsf1) that protects brain cells from alcohol and other environmental stressors. The Hsf1 function manages various gene activities of the brain that also include the regulation of heat shock protein and cell division. Nonetheless, the Hsf1 mechanism is not consistent in all brain regions that significantly endangers some regions by increasing their vulnerability to the unfavorable impact of alcohol and other environmental stressors, particularly during critical developmental or growth stages. Though Hsf1 is essential for the protection of the fetal brain, an enormous amount of it can impair brain development.

In the study, alcohol was given to pregnant mice to prompt a rise in blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to the level as seen in individuals who drink socially or suffer from an alcohol use disorder (AUD). The researchers investigated the brain cell response to alcohol and other environmental stressors, such as hydrogen peroxide and methyl mercury. These stressors are known to cause oxidative stress that in turn influences Hsf1 signaling.

The researchers tried analyzing the Hsf1 activation pattern in the developing cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that is responsible for the processing of the information. Since cell division and expansion were occurring at an accelerated rate in the cerebral cortex during the study, it was more vulnerable to the repercussions of alcohol and other stressors in utero.

The study findings point out the following:

  • Dividing brain cells, with high levels of Hsf1 activation due to exposure to alcohol, developed into neurons but exhibited delayed migration, which can alter the brain’s neuro-circuitry and cause disturbances in communications in the specific brain regions.
  • Even instances where Hsf1 activated for short periods was enough to cause severe deficiencies in the migration of the cortical neurons.

“This study sheds light on the mechanisms underlying alcohol’s toxic effects on the fetal brain and may have broader implications for understanding the normal fetal brain development, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders unrelated to prenatal alcohol exposure,” said NIAAA Director George F. Koob, Ph.D. These findings explain the gamut of behavioral, learning deficits and other symptoms observed in individuals with FASD and other congenital brain disorders.

Seek recovery to avoid consequences of unsafe drinking

There are neither safe amounts of alcohol nor any specific time during pregnancy when it’s okay for a woman to consider alcohol consumption. Indulgence in drinking, especially during pregnancy is extremely risky and could prove dangerous for the development, health and future of the unborn child.

If you or your loved one is battling alcohol addiction, it is important to seek help. The Florida Alcohol Addiction Helpline assists in accessing the finest alcohol addiction treatment in Florida that specializes in delivering evidence-based intervention plans. Call at our 24/7 helpline 866-220-5381 to know more about the alcohol rehabilitation centers in Florida.