Daunting new research out of the University of Helsinki claims that drinking alcohol, even during the early weeks of pregnancy, can cause irreversible damage to an unborn baby. The researchers claim that in the early stages of pregnancy, even before many women realize that they are pregnant, alcohol exposure can cause symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is an often brushed-over topic. Reports focus primarily on stunted growth and learning disabilities, but the reality of alcohol’s impact on a baby can be much more encompassing and individualized — affecting behavior, impulse control, learning, and numerous other areas. The research was done on mice, and the scientists say that this research supports earlier theories that drinking even during very early pregnancy can cause permanent damage to children.

The researchers said that maternal alcohol intake in early pregnancy changed the way genes function in the offspring exposed prenatally to alcohol. The changes were lasting and irreversible. The researchers warned that drinking alcohol, even as early as three weeks after conception, can cause symptoms that mirror fetal alcohol syndrome, including structural changes to the face and skull, and lasting, age-inappropriate hyperactivity.

Other symptoms of fetal alcohol exposure include teeth and mouth problems, hearing and ear problems, immune system weakness, defects in organs, muscular problems, hormonal disorders, and many more physical and cognitive issues. Lara Crutchfield, FASD trainer with FASD Today, detailed the specific physical and neurological damage that can be caused when a woman drinks during pregnancy. Some of this damage is unique to fetal alcohol exposure.

The researchers warned that early pregnancy is an especially dangerous time to consume alcohol, because it’s such an active time for cell division and differentiation, according to the Daily Mail. The research into maternal alcohol consumption during early pregnancy focused on the memory and learning center of the brain known as the hippocampus, which is especially sensitive to alcohol exposure. This exposure resulted in typical symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome, but it also altered the epigenome and the function of many genes in the hippocampi. This damage lasted into the adulthood of the test subjects. The alcohol also changed the gene function of bone marrow. Dr Kaminen-Ahola explained.

“The results support our assumption that alcohol permanently alters gene regulation at a very early stage. This would be significant for the challenging diagnostics of alcohol-induced damage. The mechanisms and biological markers which can aid in diagnosis are studied so that we can offer the developmental support necessitated by the damage as early as possible. Ideally, a swipe sample from inside the mouth of a newborn could reveal the extent of damage caused by early pregnancy alcohol exposure.”

Last fall, research out the the University of North Carolina found that a significantly greater number of children probably suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder than anyone ever suspected. Earlier this year, Professor Peter Hepper from Queen’s University Belfast broke the news that even drinking a half of a glass of wine with dinner could damage a baby’s brain, an earlier Inquisitr article detailed.

Some earlier research indicated that proper maternal intake of folate, choline, and vitamin A might offer some protection to unborn babies against the effects of fetal alcohol exposure.

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