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Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Impacts Child's Development

First Posted: Nov 26, 2012 12:15 AM EST
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Consuming alcohol during pregnancy impacts a baby's physical and mental development. Prenatal alcohol exposure may lead to  'Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder'.

According to a new finding, a fetus exposed to alcohol displays changes in brain structure and metabolism that are visible using various imaging techniques.

The researchers were able to get an exceptional insight into effects of alcohol on the central nervous system of babies whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy. This was done with the help of advancements in magnetic resonance imaging.

Similarly, researchers from Poland used three different MRI techniques to better define these effects.

For the study, the researchers included around 200 children who were exposed to alcohol during their fetal stage and 30 children whose mothers did not drink while pregnant or during lactation.

With the help of MRI they analyzed the size and shape of the corpus callosum in the two groups. Corpus collasum is a bundle of nerve fibers that forms the major communication link between the right and left halves of the brain. The researchers highlighted that prenatal alcohol exposure is the major cause of impaired development or complete absence of the corpus callosum.

On conducting the MRI they noticed significant thinning of the corpus callosum in the children exposed to alcohol compared with the other group.

"These changes are strongly associated with psychological problems in children," said Andrzej Urbanik, M.D., chair of the department of radiology at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.

Apart from this, the researchers studied six areas of the central nervous system in children using diffusion weighted imaging (DWI). This records the diffusion process of water. It can be considered as a more sensitive means than traditional MRI for detecting tissue abnormalities.

Children in the alcohol group exhibited statistically significant increases in diffusion on DWI compared with the other children.

"The increase of diffusion indicates neurological disorders or damage to the brain tissue," Dr. Urbanik said.

 Proton (hydrogen) magnetic resonance spectroscopy (HMRS), a common adjunct to structural MRI studies, was used by the researchers to study metabolism in the brains of the children. By adopting this technique they noticed a complex collection of metabolic changes.

"In individual cases, we found a high degree of metabolic changes that were specific for particular locations within the brain," Dr. Urbanik said.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, research suggests an incidence of 0.2 to 1.5 per 1,000 live births. Costs for care of individuals affected by fetal alcohol syndrome in the U.S. are estimated at $4 billion annually.

The new study was presented on November 25 at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA). 

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