A UC Riverside research team has disocovered that exposure to alcohol during the womb significantly alters the expression of genes and the development of neural networks in the brain. The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience and led by Kelly Huffman, assistant professor of psychology at UC Riverside and lead author of the study. Huffman’s team found dramatic changes in intraneocortical connections between the frontal, somatosensory and visual cortex in mice born to mothers who consumed ethanol during pregnancy. The changes were especially severe in the frontal cortex, which regulates motor skill learning, decision-making, planning, judgment, attention, risk-taking, executive function and sociality.
The brain affected is called the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for high-level thought and cognition, vision, hearing, touch, balance, motor skills, language, and emotion.
The exposure to alcohol caused wrong areas of the brain to be connected with each other.
“If you consume alcohol when you are pregnant you can disrupt the development of your baby’s brain,” said Huffman.
“This research helps us understand how substances like alcohol impact brain development and change behavior,” Huffman explained. “It also shows how prenatal alcohol exposure generates dramatic change in the brain that leads to changes in behavior. Although this study uses a moderate- to high-dose model, others have shown that even small doses alter development of key receptors in the brain.”
Children born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FASD) may have facial deformities and can display cognitive, behavioral and motor deficits from ethanol-related neurobiological damage in early development. Those deficits may include learning disabilities, reduced intelligence, mental retardation and anxiety or depression, Huffman said.
Milder forms of FASD may produce no facial deformities, such as wideset eyes and smooth upper lip, but behavioral issues such as hyperactivity, hyperirritability and attention problems may appear as the child develops, she added.
“I was surprised that the result of alcohol exposure was quite dramatic,” Huffman said. “We found elevated levels of anxiety, disengaged behavior, and difficulty with fine motor coordination tasks. These are the kinds of things you see in children with FASD.”
“Would you put whiskey in your baby’s bottle? Drinking during pregnancy is not that much different,” she said. “If you ask me if you have three glasses of wine during pregnancy will your child have FASD, I would say probably not. If you ask if there will be changes in the brain, I would say, probably. There is no safe level of drinking during pregnancy.”
H. El Shawa, C. W. Abbott, K. J. Huffman. Prenatal Ethanol Exposure Disrupts Intraneocortical Circuitry, Cortical Gene Expression, and Behavior in a Mouse Model of FASD. Journal of Neuroscience, 2013; 33 (48): 18893 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3721-13.2013.