Written By: by University of Helsinki
Alcohol exposure in early pregnancy can change gene function during the tightly regulated embryonic development, and consequently cause developmental disorders—especially neurodevelopmental disorders. Novel information on the effects of early alcohol exposure was gained by studying alcohol-exposed human placentas and cultured human embryonic stem cells.
Genome-wide effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the gene function and the epigenome of placenta was studied for the first time in the University of Helsinki, Finland. Epigenome is a molecular layer on a DNA strand regulating the expression of genes. DNA methylation, which was the focus of this work, is the most well-known epigenetic regulator.
A cohort of 80 alcohol-exposed and 100 control newborns was collected in collaboration with MD Hanna Kahila, specialized in antenatal substance use care, in Helsinki University Hospital. When the placental epigenomes of prenatally alcohol-exposed newborns were compared with controls, significantly decreased amounts of DNA methylation were observed.
To study the early effects of alcohol exposure, the placentas of newborns from mothers who consumed alcohol up the gestational week seven at maximum were selected for separate analyses. Furthermore, to explore the effects of alcohol exposure on the first human cells, human embryonic stem cells were exposed to alcohol during culturing.
“We observed similar alcohol-associated alterations in DNA methylation in placenta and in cultured human embryonic stem cells,” says doctoral researcher Pauliina Auvinen.
This indicates that the observed alterations are associated with alcohol exposure, not with maternal smoking or other environmental factors during pregnancy. These kinds of confounding effects are difficult to exclude in any human study.
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