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

Light drinking in 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 in real time how drinking affects the fetus.
  • Recommendations against light drinking in pregnancy have been criticized as paternalistic and not based on evidence.

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

The yet unpublished studywhich will be presented at Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America the next week he used fetal brain imaging to see in real time how alcohol consumption by pregnant women 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 sights and sounds, and understand language.

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

The study authors told Insider that their research is the first to use this type of technology to determine 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 develop problems, researchers say there’s no guarantee the children won’t either.

“It may be a very small risk associated with every glass you might drink during pregnancy, but you never know if it’s the one that could push you over the edge,” co-author Dr. Marlene Stuempflen.

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

To conduct the study, doctors at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria gathered a group of 500 women who received fetal magnetic resonance imaging for various clinical reasons. They then whittled that group down to 51 who said in an anonymous questionnaire that they had consumed some alcohol during pregnancy. It is about 10%, which is in line with previous assessments how much pregnant women drink.

(Researchers told Insider that a psychologist was involved in the recruitment process, which emphasized creating an environment where it was safe for people to share their drinking habits honestly.)

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 MRIs of fetuses from drinkers to compare with MRIs of fetuses from non-drinkers at the same stage of pregnancy: between 22 and 36 weeks.

“We really put an emphasis on creating a very structured and very unbiased data set and collecting patients,” Stuempflen said.

The authors of the study found that the brains of fetuses 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 more, was shallower.

Namely, doctors have noticed that the brains of fetuses of people who drink are smoother and more symmetrical, while the normally developing brain has more folds and one hemisphere grows before the other.

Differences in the fetal brain exposed to alcohol

Alcohol-exposed fetal brain (left) has a smoother cortex in the observed lobes. In a healthy control (right), the superior temporal sulcus (see arrows) is already forming.

Patric Kienast



“The most surprising thing to me is that fetuses that were exposed to a relatively small amount of alcohol developed this symmetrical brain,” lead study author Dr. Patric Kienast. “That means for less than one drink a week we’ve already seen these effects.”

The study improves the work of the group introduced last yearwho found that alcohol-exposed fetal brains had a smaller paraventricular zone (the “birthplace” of all neurons, Stuempflen said) and a larger corpus colosum (highway between the cerebral hemispheres) than fetal brains that had not been exposed to alcohol.

Since Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder can manifest itself quite differently in all patients – from mild attention difficulties to noticeable facial deformities to learning disabilities and birth defects – it makes sense that alcohol affects these widespread brain structures, rather than a single, closed one. region, Stuempflen said.

Her team plans follow-up 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 claims 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 statutes that alcohol should be completely eliminated during pregnancy were criticized as paternalistic and not based on evidence, because it is difficult to conduct high-quality studies on the harm of light alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Such studies often have to rely on mothers honestly recalling how much they drank many years earlier and cannot disentangle all the many factors – diet, exercisesaccess 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 2020 paper found that just one reported drink a week led to changes in the developing brain that can lead to behavioral disorders in children.

There are also studies that find no link between light or moderate alcohol consumption and developmental challenges in children. Parenting Expert and economist Emily Oster there is pointed to a Danish studyfor example, up to eight drinks a week during pregnancy have been found to have 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 contributor to cognitive impairment in children and later in adulthood,” Stuempflen said.



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