Mother’s Immune Profile May Influence Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Outcome

A new study has found that alcohol use during pregnancy can affect a woman’s immune system in ways that may predict her child’s neurodevelopmental outcome. Specific changes in a mother’s immune system can also serve as an indicator of prenatal alcohol use. Prenatal alcohol use can cause an array of health effects in offspring, collectively called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). The most profound effects of prenatal alcohol exposure are brain damage and the resulting impairments in behavioral and cognitive functioning. These deficits can contribute to learning disabilities, problems holding a job, and poor social skills throughout a person’s life.

Cytokines are immune system messengers that help to control immune responses and play an important role in brain development. Alterations in the maternal immune system during pregnancy can result in changes in the cytokine balance of the fetus, thus affecting typical brain development. For example, alterations in maternal immune system molecules have been linked to childhood neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

The Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (CIFASD), supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, recently found that alcohol consumption disrupted the levels of eight maternal cytokines that may influence the risk for FASD. The Fall 2018 issue of NIAAA Spectrum reported on the results of that study in “Maternal Cytokine Balance May Play Role in FASD Risk.”

The present study extended this work. Cytokines do not act individually but, rather, are part of functional networks involving many other kinds of molecules. A CIFASD research team led by Joanne Weinberg, Ph.D., at the University of British Columbia evaluated a panel of 40 cytokines and related factors. They analyzed individual cytokines as well as networks of interacting cytokines. The goal was to identify maternal immune profiles predictive of alcohol intake and child neurodevelopmental outcomes.

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