A simple screening test could help identify infants at risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), according to a report in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Prenatal exposure to alcohol can cause a wide range of lifelong physical, behavioral, and cognitive disabilities, encompassed by the umbrella term FASD. Identifying babies at risk for FASD has previously relied on maternal self-reports of drinking in pregnancy; however, this can be unreliable, as women may under-report their drinking because of recall bias or fear of stigma. Recently, biological markers have been identified that can provide more objective data on prenatal alcohol exposure and supplement information from maternal self-reports. One such biomarker, phosphatidylethanol (PEth), is a direct marker of alcohol metabolism that can indicate exposure with a high level of accuracy, and can be simply measured in newborns (and their mothers) using minimally invasive methods.
The consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure have been highlighted by three new reports on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) in a virtual issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. FASD is the umbrella term for the continuum of effects caused by prenatal drinking, encompassing the most severe form, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), and less severe forms including partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS) and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND). Children with FAS have poor growth, atypical facial features, and central nervous system problems, and all three conditions require evidence of neurobehavioral impairment for diagnosis.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) describe the range of effects associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE). The most severe forms of FASD are fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and partial fetal alcohol syndrome (PFAS), which have adverse effects on learning and memory and result in observable physical abnormalities, including a distinct pattern of facial dysmorphic features, small head circumference, and growth restriction. Identifying the specific brain regions affected is important to fully understand the impact of PAE. Poor spatial skills are common in children with FASD, and tests of navigation in rodents – and more recently, humans – have linked PAE to impairment in ‘place learning’ (the learning of physical positions or locations of objects). Place learning in rodents and humans depends on the hippocampus, a small seahorse-shaped structure in each side of the brain. The hippocampus is particularly sensitive to PAE and is smaller in people (and rodents) exposed to alcohol in
Drinking while pregnant can harm the developing fetus, leading to physical, cognitive, and neurobehavioral effects that may persist into adulthood. No safe level of alcohol in pregnancy has been identified, and many guidelines now recommend total abstinence. However, prenatal drinking remains common, particularly early on before women are aware of their pregnancy.
Mothers who drink moderate to high levels of alcohol during pregnancy may be changing their babies’ DNA, according to a Rutgers-led study.