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Sleep Changes Seen From Fetal Alcohol Exposure May Explain Learning, Mood Problems

First Posted: Feb 24, 2016 10:32 PM EST

Sleep changes associated with fetal alcohol exposure may explain learning and mood problems, according to recent findings published in the journal Neuroscience.

Exposure of a developing brain to binge levels of alcohol results in a permanent fragmentation in slow-wave sleep, with the extent of the fragmentation influencing the severity of related cognitive disorders, according to study authors.

"We have known for a long time that sleep fragmentation is associated with impaired cognitive function, attention and emotional regulation," Donald Wilson, PhD, a professor in NYU Langone's Departments of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Neuroscience and Physiology, and a member of the NKI, said in a news release. "Our study shows for the first time that binge alcohol exposure early in life results in long-lasting slow-wave sleep fragmentation, which, in turn, is associated with learning problems."

During the study, researchers used a mouse model of fetal alcohol syndrome that's designed to estimate the third-trimester of pregnancy in humans. They examined slow-wave sleep in adult mice by injecting them once with the equivalent of binge amount of ethanol just seven days after they were born. However, those in the control group were injected with saline. Mice brains continue to grow after birth and seven days after birth equals the third trimester for brain development when compared to development in a human fetus.

Findings showed that mice exposed to ethanol during the study spent less time in slow-wave sleep and also experienced more severe sleep fragmentation; this was linked to memory impairment and these mice were also more likely to be hyperactive. However, this was not the case for mice in the control groups who were not given ethanol.

"Targeting therapeutic interventions toward sleep may help to relieve aspects of the diverse disorders linked to fetal alcohol exposure, and may open new avenues for treatment of this far too common condition," said Wilson.

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