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Alcohol during pregnancy alters brain circuitry in offspring

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Prenatal exposure to alcohol alters brain development and leads to increased anxiety and poor motor skills, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. A team of researchers from the University of California, Riverside, found that offspring born from women who consumed alcohol during pregnancy have a high risk of brain abnormalities. The study results contradict popular opinion according to which alcohol consumption during pregnancy does not lead to impaired development of the offspring. According to the study, prenatal exposure to alcohol alters the connections in the neocortex, the region of the brain that is responsible for processes such as high-level thinking, vision, hearing, language, motor skills or emotions. Researchers warn that there is no safe level of drinking during pregnancy.

Kelly Huffman, assistant professor of psychology at UC Riverside and lead author of the study, explained that consuming alcohol during pregnancy can alter normal brain development. Huffman added that prenatal exposure to alcohol causes changes in the brain which lead to behavioral changes later in life. Even though the study led by researchers at the University of California have used moderate -to high- dose models, other studies have shown that even small doses of alcohol can lead to changes in key receptors in the brain. So far it has been shown that exposure to alcohol during pregnancy has negative consequences on brain development in the offspring but it a clear link between alcohol exposure and disruption of neural networks has not been established yet.

Alcohol during pregnancy

Now, Huffman says she is surprised to see that these neurobiological changes induced by alcohol exposure are quite dramatic. “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”, she said.

It seems that alcohol leads to significant changes in intraneocortical circuits between the frontal cortex, visual and somatosensory cortex in offspring born to mothers who consumed alcohol during pregnancy. According to the study, these changes are more severe in the frontal cortex, a brain region associated with executive functions, planning, judgment, motor skills, decision-making etc.

The study also showed that children with FASD have a higher risk of having facial deformities and motor behavioral and cognitive deficits. These deficits may result later in life in mental retardation or low intelligence, poor learning skills, anxiety or depression. Children with minor forms of FASD may not develop facial deformities but still are more likely to express hyperactivity, attention problems or hyperirritability.