A new study finds that drinking alcohol while pregnant causes abnormalities in the brain and behavior that may be passed on for many generations.
The new research finds that drinking alcohol during pregnancy will not only affect a mother’s unborn child, but may also impact brain development and lead to adverse outcomes in her future grand- and even great-grandchildren.
“Traditionally, prenatal ethanol exposure (PrEE) from maternal consumption of alcohol was thought to solely impact directly exposed offspring, the embryo or fetus in the womb,” said Dr. Kelly Huffman, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside.
“However, we now have evidence that the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure could persist transgenerationally and negatively impact the next-generations of offspring who were never exposed to alcohol.”
Previous research from Huffman’s laboratory has shown that PrEE impacts the anatomy of the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for complex behavior and cognition in humans, and that it can lead to abnormal motor behavior and increased anxiety in the exposed offspring.
According to the researchers, they have extended this research by providing evidence that in utero ethanol exposure generates neurobiological and behavioral effects in subsequent generations of mice that had no ethanol exposure.
To determine whether the abnormalities in brain and behavior from prenatal ethanol exposure would pass transgenerationally, Huffman generated a mouse model of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) and tested many aspects of brain and behavioral development across three generations.
As expected, the first generation, the directly exposed offspring, showed atypical gene expression, abnormal development of the neural network within the neocortex and behavioral deficits, the researchers noted.
However, the researchers also discovered that the subsequent, non-exposed generations of mice had neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems similar to the those of the first, directly exposed generation.
“We found that body weight and brain size were significantly reduced in all generations of PrEE animals when compared to controls; all generation of PrEE mice showed increased anxiety-like, depressive-like behaviors and sensory-motor deficits,” Huffman said.
“By demonstrating the strong transgenerational effects of prenatal ethanol exposure in a mouse model of FASD, we suggest that FASD may be a heritable condition in humans.”
The study suggests that alcohol consumption while pregnant leads to a cascade of nervous system changes that ultimately impact behavior, via mechanisms that can produce transgenerational effects.
By gaining an understanding of the neurodevelopmental and behavioral effects of prenatal ethanol exposure that persist across generations, scientists and researchers can begin to create novel therapies and methods of prevention, the researchers concluded.
The study was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.