Drinking during pregnancy changes the baby’s brain structure
Summary: Pregnant women who drink small to moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy risk changing the structure of their baby’s brain and delaying brain development.
A new MRI study has found that drinking even small to moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can change the structure of a baby’s brain and delay brain development. The results of the study will be presented next week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).
“Fetal MRI is a highly specialized and safe examination method that allows us to make precise statements about brain maturation prenatally,” said senior study author Gregor Kasprian, MD, associate professor of radiology in the Department of Biomedical Imaging and Image-Guided Therapy. Medical University of Vienna, Austria.
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can expose the fetus to a group of conditions called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Babies born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders may develop learning difficulties, behavioral problems, or speech and language delays.
“Unfortunately, many pregnant women are unaware of the effects of alcohol on the fetus during pregnancy,” said lead author Patric Kienast, MD, Ph.D. student at the Department of Biomedical Imaging and Image-Guided Therapy, Department of Neuroradiology and Musculoskeletal Radiology at the Medical University of Vienna.
“Therefore, it is our responsibility not only to conduct research, but also to actively educate the public about the effects of alcohol on the fetus.”
For this study, researchers analyzed MRI scans of 24 fetuses that had been exposed to alcohol before birth. Fetuses were between 22 and 36 weeks’ gestation at the time of MRI. Exposure to alcohol was determined by anonymous surveys of mothers.
The questionnaires used were the Pregnancy Risk Monitoring System (PRAMS), a surveillance project of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health, and the T-ACE Screening Tool, a tool measuring four questions that identify the risk of alcohol consumption.
In alcohol-exposed fetuses, the fetal total maturation score (fTMS) was significantly lower than in age-matched controls, and the right superior temporal sulcus (STS) was shallower. OPS is involved in social cognition, audiovisual integration and language perception.
“We found the biggest changes in the temporal region of the brain and the STS,” said Dr. Casprian. “We know that this region, and especially the formation of STS, has a great impact on language development during childhood.”
Brain changes have been observed in fetuses even at low levels of alcohol exposure.
“Seventeen of the 24 mothers drank alcohol relatively rarely, with an average alcohol consumption of less than one alcoholic drink per week,” said Dr. Kienast. “Nevertheless, we were able to detect significant changes in these fetuses based on prenatal MRI.”
Three mothers drink one to three drinks a week, and two mothers four to six drinks a week. One mother consumed an average of 14 or more drinks per week. Six mothers also reported at least one drinking event (more than four drinks on one occasion) during pregnancy.
According to the researchers, the delayed development of the fetal brain may be specifically related to a delayed phase of myelination and less pronounced gyrification in the frontal and occipital lobes.
The process of myelination is crucial for the function of the brain and nervous system. Myelin protects nerve cells, allowing them to transmit information faster. Important developmental milestones in infants, such as rolling over, crawling, and language processing are directly related to myelination.
Gyrification refers to the formation of cortical folds. This bending increases the surface area of the cortex with limited space in the skull, allowing for an increase in cognitive performance. When gyrification is reduced, functionality is reduced.
“Pregnant women should strictly avoid alcohol consumption,” said dr. Kienast. “As we show in our study, even low alcohol consumption can lead to structural changes in brain development and delayed brain maturation.”
It is unclear how these structural changes will affect brain development in these babies after birth.
“In order to assess it accurately, we need to wait for the children who were examined as fetuses to grow up a little, so that we can invite them for further examinations,” said Dr. Kienast. “However, we can strongly assume that the changes we found contribute to cognitive and behavioral difficulties that can occur in childhood.”
Co-authors include Marlene Stuempflen, MD, Daniela Prayer, MD, Benjamin Sigl, MD, Mariana Schuette, MD, Ph.D., and Sarah Glatter, MD, MMSc.
About this news about alcohol and brain development research
Original Research: The findings will be presented at the 108th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America
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