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- Credit: Kelsey Chance/Unsplash

Alcohol during pregnancy causes abnormal brain structure

Ladies, please read everything carefully, before judging me.

Brains of human foetuses in the womb have been scanned by researchers for the first time to observe the impact of maternal alcohol consumption on prenatal neural development. Results revealed that even the smallest alcohol exposure leads to significant structural changes within key brain regions including the hippocampus and the germinal matrix, which is where brain cells are generated during early foetal growth.

Several postnatal studies have indicated that babies with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, resulting from even the most minute alcohol use during pregnancy tend to have enlarged hippocampi. As the hippocampus has a central role in learning, memory and emotional regulation, it's not surprising that children with these conditions often have learning disabilities or behavioural problems.

Credit: freestocks/Unsplash

Credit: freestocks/Unsplash

However, until now scientists had never pinpointed the beginnings of these structural abnormalities, as the early brain development of foetuses exposed to alcohol had not been observed. To shed some light on the matter, a team of researchers from the Medical University of Vienna used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 27 foetuses aged between 20 and 37 weeks that had been exposed to alcohol, plus 36 controls that had not been exposed to alcohol.

Presenting their research, the scientists explained how they've analysed the total volume of 12 different brain regions, painting a picture of alcohol's effect on different areas of the foetal brain. Results indicated that alcohol-exposed foetuses had larger hippocampi than controls, while the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain was also enlarged.

Credit: Alicia Petresc/Unsplash

Credit: Alicia Petresc/Unsplash

The alteration of the corpus callosum may explain why foetal alcohol spectrum disorders are associated with structural abnormalities in both hemispheres, although the researchers were intrigued to find an enlargement of this brain structure in the foetuses, as infants with these disorders usually display a reduction in the thickness of the corpus callosum.

Compared to controls, foetuses that had been exposed to alcohol also showed decreases in volume within the periventricular zone and germinal matrix. During early foetal development, all neurones are generated within the germinal matrix and migrate to other parts of the brain, so a thinning of this key structure is an alarming finding.

Credit: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Credit: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Summing up the relevance of this work, the study's authors explained in a statement that they and their colleagues wanted to see how early it’s possible to find changes in the foetal brain as a result of alcohol exposure. While more research is needed in order to tease out the full implications of the team’s findings, the scans lay bare the fact that alcohol exposure during pregnancy puts the brain on a path of development that diverges from a normal trajectory.

On a personal note, when I commented here, agreeing with the World Health Organisation's recommendation for cutting alcohol for pregnant women, the ladies here attacked me for my firm stance against alcohol. Well - there you go. Proof why it's gotta happen. I understand "My body - my choice", but when you're pregnant, there's another person you have to care for, before being born. Your most precious thing in the world will grow better and happier, and so would you, if you don't touch any alcohol for 9 months. You can skip that gender-reveal party, because it's worth it.

Credit: Aditya Romansa/Unsplash

Credit: Aditya Romansa/Unsplash

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