Light drinking during pregnancy can change the brain of the fetus: study

Light drinking during pregnancy can change the brain of the fetus: study

  • A small new study suggests that less than one alcoholic drink per week affects fetal brain structure.
  • The research is the first to use fetal magnetic resonance imaging to see how drinking affects the fetus in real time.
  • Recommendations against light drinking in pregnancy have been criticized as paternalistic and not based on evidence.

Consuming less than one alcoholic drink a week during pregnancy is enough to change a fetus’s brain in ways that can lead to problems after the baby is born, such as language deficits, new research suggests.

The yet unpublished studywhich will be presented at Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America next week, used fetal brain imaging to see in real time how alcohol consumption by pregnant women they can affect key regions of the developing brain.

The findings suggest that even occasional drinking can slow fetal brain development and change a part of the brain that helps children develop social skills, interpret pictures and sounds, and understand language.

While past research is clear that heavy drinking in pregnancy can lead to lasting and serious physical, cognitive and behavioral problems in children, indications that even light drinking is dangerous have come under increased attention by some doctors and parenting experts.

The study authors told Insider that their research is the first to use this type of technology to see exactly when and where alcohol exposure begins to affect the developing brain.

And while not all, or even most, babies of pregnant women who drink will have problems, researchers say there’s no guarantee the children won’t either.

“There may be very little risk associated with every glass you might drink during pregnancy, but you never know if it might push you over the edge,” co-author Dr. Marlene Stuempflen told Insider.

The researchers studied 24 brains out of an initial 500 to eliminate confounding factors

To conduct the study, doctors at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria gathered a group of 500 women who had fetal magnetic resonance imaging for a variety of clinical reasons. Then they reduced that group to 51 people who said in an anonymous questionnaire that they consumed little alcohol during pregnancy. It is about 10%, which is in line with past assessments how much pregnant women drink.

(Researchers told Insider that a psychologist was involved in the recruitment process, which emphasized making the environment a safe place for people to be honest about their drinking habits.)

The doctors then eliminated any mothers-to-be whose fetuses may have had abnormal brain structures due to reasons other than alcohol, such as heart disease, genetic anomalies or imaging errors. That left them with 24 fetal MRIs of alcohol drinkers to compare with fetal MRIs of fetal drinkers at the same stage of pregnancy: between 22 and 36 weeks.

“We’re really putting an emphasis on creating a very structured and very unbiased data set and patient collection,” Stuempflen said.

The authors of the study found that the fetal brains of drinkers develop significantly more slowly than the brains of non-drinkers of the same gestational age. They also found that the right superior temporal sulcus, which it plays a role in empathy, perspective takinglanguage perception and other things, it was shallower.

In particular, doctors noticed that the brains of fetuses of drinkers are smoother and more symmetrical, while the brain of a normally developing brain has more folds and one hemisphere grows before the other.

Differences in the brains of fetuses exposed to alcohol

A fetal brain exposed to alcohol (left) has a smoother cortex of the observed lobes. In a healthy control (right), the superior temporal sulcus (see arrows) is already forming.

Patric Kienast



“What surprised me the most was that fetuses that were exposed to a relatively small amount of alcohol developed this symmetrical brain,” study lead author Dr. Patric Kienast told Insider. “That means at less than one drink a week, we’ve already seen these effects.”

The study improves the work of the group presented last yearwho found that the brains of fetuses exposed to alcohol had a smaller paraventricular zone (the “birthplace” of all neurons, Stuempflen said) and a larger corpus collosum (the highway between the brain’s hemispheres) than the brains of fetuses not exposed to alcohol.

Because Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder can manifest quite differently in all patients—from mild attention difficulties to noticeable facial deformities to learning disabilities and birth defects—it makes sense that alcohol appears to affect these broad brain structures rather than just one. , a limited region, Stuempflen said.

Her team plans further research to see if and how these changes affect children as they grow up.

There is increasing evidence linking drinking during pregnancy to brain changes in the fetus

CDC, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologistsand the American Pediatric Association claim that there is there is no known safe amount of alcohol in pregnancy. World Heart Federation goes so far as to say that there is no safe amount of alcohol for anyone, pregnant or not.

But it prescribes that alcohol is completely eliminated during pregnancy were criticized as paternalistic and not based on evidence, since it is difficult to conduct high-quality studies on the harms of light alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Such studies often have to rely on mothers honestly recalling how much they drank years ago and cannot tease out all the factors — diet, trainingaccess to health care, stress, sleepand social support, to name just a few — that can affect a child’s development.

Previous imaging studies were in rats or were performed retrospectively, e.g this document from 2020 finding that just one reported drink per week led to changes in the developing brain that can lead to behavioral disorders in children.

And there are studies that find no link between light or moderate alcohol consumption and developmental challenges in children. Parenting Expert i economist Emily Oster have a Danish study indicatedfor example, which found that up to eight drinks a week during pregnancy had no effect on children’s intelligence or attention levels.

Kienast’s team argues that the potential risk of drinking, even if low, is not worth it. “We know that prenatal alcohol exposure is the single most important factor contributing to preventable cognitive impairment in children and, later, adults,” Stuempflen said.

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