Drinking during pregnancy changes the baby’s brain structure

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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders are a range of conditions that can affect the fetus if alcohol is consumed during pregnancy. Babies born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder may have speech and language development delays, learning disabilities, or behavioral problems.

Unfortunately, many pregnant women are unaware of the influence of alcohol on the fetus during pregnancy. A new study aims to highlight the effects of alcohol on the fetus.

A new MRI study has found that drinking even low to moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can alter the baby’s brain structure and delay brain development.

The study’s senior author, Gregor Kasprian, MD, associate professor of radiology in the Department of Biomedical Imaging and Image-Guided Therapy at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, said: “Fetal MRI is a highly specialized and safe method of examination that allows us to make accurate statements about brain maturation before birth.”

The scientists analyzed the MRI scans of 24 fetuses exposed to alcohol before birth. At the time of the MRI, the gestational age of the fetuses ranged from 22 to 36 weeks. Anonymous surveys of mothers have identified mothers’ exposure to alcohol. The questionnaires used were the T-ACE Screening Tool, a four-question measurement tool that identifies risky drinking, and the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS), a surveillance initiative of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the departments health.

Fetal total maturation score (fTMS) and right superior temporal sulcus (STS) were significantly lower in alcohol-exposed fetuses than in age-matched controls. STS plays a role in language perception, audiovisual integration, and social cognition.

Dr. Kasprian said, “We found the greatest changes in the temporal and STS brain region. We know that this region, and more particularly the formation of the STS, has a great influence on the development of language during childhood.

Senior author Patric Kienast, MD, Ph.D. student in the Department of Biomedical Imaging and Image-Guided Therapy, Division of Neuroradiology and Musculoskeletal Radiology, Medical University of Vienna, said: “Seventeen of the 24 mothers drank alcohol relatively infrequently, with an average alcohol consumption of less than one alcoholic drink per week. Nevertheless, we were able to detect significant changes in these fetuses based on prenatal MRI.

Two mothers drank four to six glasses per week, while three mothers drank one to three. A mother drank at least 14 glasses per week on average. Additionally, six mothers reported having had at least one incident of binge drinking (more than four drinks on one occasion) during their pregnancy.

Research shows that a delayed stage of myelination and less defined gyrification in the frontal and occipital lobes were responsible for the delayed fetal brain development.

Dr. Kienast said, “Pregnant women should strictly avoid the consumption of alcohol. As we show in our study, even low levels of alcohol consumption can cause structural changes in brain development and delay brain maturation.

However, it is still unclear how these structural changes will affect the brain development of these babies after birth.

Dr. Kienast said, “To assess this accurately, we have to wait until the children who have been examined as fetuses get a bit older, so that we can invite them back for further examinations. However, we can strongly assume that the changes we discovered contribute to the cognitive and behavioral difficulties that can arise during childhood.

The results of the study will be presented next week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

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