A newborn baby’s first stool may indicate whether the child is at greater risk for future cognitive problems due to prenatal alcohol exposure, according to researchers at Case Western Reserve University.
Specifically, high levels of fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEE) found in the meconium (a newborn’s first stool) indicate that the mother has used alcohol during pregnancy. In the new study, researchers found a direct correlation between FAEE in the meconium and later difficulties with intelligence and reasoning. Left untreated, these problems often persist into the teen years.
The study is one of the first to look at the relationship between FAEEs in meconium and IQ through the teen years.
“We wanted to see if there was a connection between FAEE level and their cognitive development during childhood and adolescence, and there was,” said lead researcher Meeyoung O. Min, Ph.D., research assistant professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western.
“FAEE can serve as a marker for fetal alcohol exposure and developmental issues ahead.”
The research is part of the ongoing Project Newborn study, funded by the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. The researchers have been following the physical, social and cognitive developments of babies born to mothers who have used cocaine, alcohol, and other drugs during their pregnancies.
For the study, researchers analyzed the meconium of 216 newborns for levels of FAEE. They then gave intelligence tests at ages nine, 11 and 15. The findings showed a link between those with high levels of FAEE at birth and lower IQ scores.
“Although we already knew a mother’s alcohol use during her pregnancy may cause cognitive deficits, what is significant is that the early marker, not previously available, predicted this, establishing the predictive validity of FAEEs for determining alcohol exposure in utero,” Min said.
The findings revealed that 60 percent of the 191 mothers reported drinking while pregnant, with an average of 6.5 standard drinks weekly (one standard drink equals to 0.5 oz. of absolute alcohol). Of those women, 63 percent engaged in risk drinking. A total of 15 mothers (13 percent) had at least 12 drinks per week.
Although some newborns show obvious fetal alcohol facial characteristics, such as a smaller head and eyes, thin upper lip and a smooth ridge between upper lip and nose, many babies exposed to alcohol can still appear normal.
Furthermore, many mothers are reluctant to reveal how much they drank while pregnant because of the stigma. So prenatal alcohol exposure is often missed. This makes clinical biomarkers vital for identifying alcohol-exposed newborns.
Source: Case Western Reserve University