Alcohol also interfered with the development of a network of connections in the neocortex (responsible for high-level thought, vision, hearing, touch, balance, motor skills, language, and emotion) in a mouse model with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
In other words, prenatal exposure to alcohol causes the wrong areas of the brain to be connected to each other. These results contradict the currently popular notion that drinking some alcohol during pregnancy is harmless.
“If you consume alcohol when you are pregnant you can disrupt the development of your baby’s brain,” said lead author Kelly Huffman, assistant professor of psychology at UC Riverside. Study co-authors are UCR Ph.D. students Hani El Shawa and Charles Abbott.
“Would you put whiskey in your baby’s bottle? Drinking during pregnancy is not that much different,” she said.
“If you ask me if you have three glasses of wine during pregnancy will your child have FASD, I would say probably not. If you ask if there will be changes in the brain, I would say, probably. There is no safe level of drinking during pregnancy.”
During the study, researchers found dramatic changes in the connections between the frontal, somatosensory and visual cortex in mice born to mothers who consumed ethanol while they were pregnant. The changes were especially severe in the frontal cortex, which regulates motor skill learning, decision-making, planning, judgment, attention, risk-taking, executive function and sociality.
Huffman expected to find some disruption of intraneocortical circuitry, but figured it would be slight.
“I was surprised that the result of alcohol exposure was quite dramatic,” she said. “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.”
Her future research will investigate whether deficits linked to prenatal alcohol exposure continue through the generations.
The bottom line, Huffman said, is that women who are pregnant or who are trying to get pregnant should not drink alcohol.
“This research helps us understand how substances like alcohol impact brain development and change behavior,” Huffman said.
“It also shows how prenatal alcohol exposure generates dramatic change in the brain that leads to changes in behavior. Although this study uses a moderate- to high-dose model, others have shown that even small doses alter development of key receptors in the brain.”
Children diagnosed with FASD may have facial deformities and may exhibit cognitive, behavioral and motor deficits, including learning disabilities, reduced intelligence, mental retardation and anxiety or depression, Huffman said.
The study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.