06 August 2014

Heavy drinking in pregnancy harms child's brain

If a woman drinks excessively during pregnancy, it may affect her child's brain development over a long period of time.

When a woman drinks heavily during pregnancy, the harmful effects on her child's brain development appear to continue over time, a new study indicates.

The findings point to a possible reason for the persistent attention and behaviour problems experienced by children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, the researchers noted.

Weaker brain activation

The investigators used functional MRI to monitor the brain activity of children with and without foetal alcohol spectrum disorders over two years. The results showed that children with the disorder had weaker brain activation while doing certain mental tasks than those without the disorder. 

Read: Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders

"We found that there were significant differences in development brain activation over time between the two groups, even though they did not differ in task performance," study senior author Elizabeth Sowell, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Saban Research Institute, Children's Hospital Los Angeles, said in a hospital news release.

"While the healthy control group showed an increase in signal intensity over time, the children with [foetal alcohol spectrum disorders] showed a decrease in brain activation during visuo-spatial attention," she explained.

Read: Foetal alcohol exposure affects brain structure in kids

Visuo-spatial attention refers to how you visually perceive the spatial relationships among objects in your environment.

The study was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Persistent problems

The findings show that drinking during pregnancy can change how a child's brain signalling develops during childhood and the teen years, long after being exposed to alcohol in the womb, the researchers said.

The investigators added that the reduced brain activation in children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders could explain why they have persistent attention and behavioural problems as they mature.

Read more:

Alcohol in pregnancy
Drinking during pregnancy risks premature birth
Mom’s drinking damages unborn babies

Image: Pregnant woman with bottle of beer from Shutterstock




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