Pregnant women who drink moderate to high levels of alcohol may be altering their babies’ DNA, according to a new study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
The results also show that infants who were exposed to alcohol in the womb via the umbilical cord had increased levels of cortisol, a potentially harmful stress hormone that can suppress the immune system and lead to ongoing health issues.
Heavy drinking in women is defined as four or more drinks on at least five occasions in a month, and moderate drinking is around three drinks per occasion.
“Our findings may make it easier to test children for prenatal alcohol exposure, and enable early diagnosis and intervention that can help improve the children’s lives,” said lead author Dr. Dipak K. Sarkar, a distinguished professor and director of the Endocrine Program in the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
Building on an earlier Rutgers-led study that demonstrated how binge and heavy drinking may trigger long-lasting genetic changes in adults, the researchers wanted to investigate whether alcohol-induced DNA changes could occur in 30 pregnant women and 359 children.
In the new study, the research team discovered changes in two genes in women who drank moderate to high levels of alcohol during pregnancy and in children who had been exposed to those levels of alcohol in the womb. These genes were POMC, which regulates the stress-response system, and PER2, which influences the body’s biological clock.
“Our research may help scientists identify biomarkers — measurable indicators such as altered genes or proteins — that predict the risks from prenatal alcohol exposure,” Sarkar said.
Prenatal alcohol exposure is a leading preventable cause of birth defects and neurodevelopmental abnormalities in the United States, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Around 20 to 30 percent of women have reported drinking at some point during pregnancy, most typically during the first trimester. More than 8 percent of women have reported binge drinking at some point during pregnancy, primarily in the first trimester.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) can include physical or intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning problems. Children with FASD may have trouble learning and remembering, understanding and following directions, shifting attention, controlling emotions, and socializing.
While there is no cure, early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says there is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant.
Source: Rutgers University