Alcohol and Little Brains Don't Mix

Alcohol during pregnancy hurts long term brain development of children

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Most women know they are advised not to drink during pregnancy. They may not realize how much drinking while pregnant can deeply affect children's brains even years later.

A recent study found that drinking while pregnant significantly interferes with children's normal long-term brain development.

The problems with brain development do not stop after birth and continue for at least several years.

"Don't drink while pregnant."

The study, led by Catherine Lebel, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Neurology at the University of California at Los Angeles, involved using structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brains of children who had and had not been exposed to alcohol while they were in the womb.

The children ranged from 5 to 15 years old, and they had two scans about two years apart.

Of the 133 children included in the study, 70 had mothers who heavily drank during pregnancy (defined as an average of 13 drinks a week during pregnancy).

When the researchers looked at these children's brains, they found that "the normal processes of brain maturation are disrupted in individuals whose mothers drank heavily during pregnancy."

For example, children whose mothers drank heavily did not have as much "plasticity" in their brains.

Plasticity refers to how a brain changes and adapts to its environment and the experiences individuals have in their lives.

Learning new skills, coping with difficult situations and adapting to a person's environment all require a certain degree of brain plasticity.

The researchers also found that some areas of the brain did not gain as much volume as they should have in the children whose mothers drank heavily.

This smaller change in the brain volume of certain areas is linked to lower intelligence and to more abnormality in the children's facial structure.

The researchers saw a correlation between the volume differences and how much alcohol the children had been exposed to during each trimester.

This finding, the researchers said, means that a child's IQ and the extent of their facial differences caused by prenatal alcohol exposure might help doctors better predict what kind of brain development issues the child might later encounter.

It is possible that the brain developmental differences the researchers observed in children exposed to alcohol prenatally might also be influenced by their environments after birth.

"These findings further illustrate the need for early intervention, as they demonstrate that effective treatments may not only address current difficulties, but may also impact developmental trajectories during later childhood and adolescence in a positive way," Dr. Lebel said in a release about the study.

Not all of the 70 children with prenatal alcohol exposure had been diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

In fact, of the 37 kids who received a physical examination in addition to the MRI scans, only 23 were classified as having FASD.

Therefore the researchers' findings about the brains of children exposed to alcohol likely apply to any child exposed to heavy drinking before birth, regardless of whether they are diagnosed with FASD.

The study was published October 31 in The Journal of Neuroscience. The research was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the March of Dimes and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 1, 2012
Last Updated:
November 5, 2012