It is well established that consuming alcohol during pregnancy can cause harm to the fetus. Now, a new study finds that drinking alcohol as early as 3-4 weeks into pregnancy – before many women even realize they are expecting – may alter gene functioning in the brains of offspring, leading to long-term changes in brain structure.
The study, conducted in mice and published in the journal PLOS ONE, also identified changes in gene functioning in other body tissues as a result of alcohol consumption in early pregnancy.
The research team, led by Dr. Nina Kaminen-Ahola of the University of Helsinki in Finland, says their findings indicate that alcohol exposure in early pregnancy may cause lifelong changes to gene regulation in embryonic stem cells – the earliest cells to emerge from a developing embryo.
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been linked to increased risk of a number of health conditions for offspring, including growth restriction, intellectual and learning disabilities, poor memory, poor coordination and speech and language delays.
Dr. Kaminen-Ahola and colleagues note, however, that it is unclear exactly how alcohol exposure during pregnancy impacts fetal development to result in these conditions.
Past animal studies have suggested that alcohol consumption may influence gene expression in the embryo during early pregnancy by making changes to the epigenome, which regulates gene function. The researchers of this latest study wanted to investigate this further.
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Written by Honor Whiteman