Healthline: Even Low Levels of Tobacco, Alcohol During Pregnancy Can Impact Infant’s Brain Development

In a new study, researchers conclude that even low levels of alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy can affect an infant’s brain development.

The research builds upon past studies that have concluded that any alcohol or tobacco use during pregnancy can lead to numerous health issues for young children.

Despite the research, experts say there’s still a belief among segments of the population that occasional alcohol or tobacco use during pregnancy is OK.

Any exposure to alcohol or tobacco during pregnancy — even minimal amounts — can end up being unhealthy for a baby’s brain.

That’s according to a study published Tuesday by researchers from Columbia University in New York.

“Our study is the first to find that any level of prenatal alcohol exposure, whether it be only in the first trimester, low continuous throughout pregnancy, or high continuous exposure, are all associated with changes in newborn brain activity, measured using EEG (electroencephalography),” said Lauren C. Shuffrey, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University Medical Center and one of the study’s lead authors.

“We are first to report effects from any level of prenatal tobacco exposure on brain activity in newborns,” Shuffrey told Healthline. “These results are important since EEGs could be potentially used as an objective, noninvasive marker to examine associations with neurobehavioral development of risk for developmental disorders at later ages.”

“These results also suggest that research still hasn’t determined a safe level of alcohol or tobacco during pregnancy,” she added.

What the study revealed

Researchers studied 1,739 mother-newborn pairs from December 2011 until August 2015.

Participants were from South Africa and the Northern Plains region of the United States.

Children were born between 37 and 41 weeks of gestation, single births, and the mothers couldn’t use psychiatric medication during pregnancy.

The infants’ brain activity was measured during sleep.

“What they were getting are these full-term babies who are otherwise healthy,” said Dr. Susan Walley, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “This is really a well-designed study, to say we see observable differences in babies with even low exposure to alcohol and tobacco.”

“EEG patterns in newborns have the power to predict development outcomes,” Walley told Healthline.

Numerous past studiesTrusted Source have already determined that prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) and prenatal tobacco exposure (PTE) during pregnancy can have consequences on a child’s health.

In today’s study, researchers noted that “PAE is the leading cause of preventable intellectual disability, and smoking during pregnancy is one of the most modifiable causes of perinatal morbidity and mortality.”

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The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the FASD Prevention Conversation Project, its stakeholders, or funders.

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