One small glass of wine may be enough to harm fetal brain

Just one small glass of wine. It may not seem like much alcohol, but expectant moms should beware. Research done in Alberta points to new dangers from drinking while pregnant.

Funded by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research (AHFMR), Dr. Robert Sutherland’s work at the University of Lethbridge shows evidence of changes in the brain caused by prenatal (when the fetus is still in the womb) exposure to alcohol. His work adds more support to the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission’s recommendation that pregnant women abstain from alcohol.

Dr. Sutherland studies prenatal alcohol exposure in rats and humans. His work on rats has already shown how the parts of the fetal brain involving memory and learning are permanently blunted by relatively low daily doses of alcohol.

Now Dr. Sutherland is investigating whether the same brain changes and behavioural effects can be seen in humans. Preliminary results indicate that prenatal exposure to alcohol changes the number of neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. These changes interfere with both memory and the way electrical signals are transmitted in the brain.

“At this point we don’t know whether the changes in neurons are a direct effect of alcohol exposure or an indirect effect caused by the body trying to compensate for some other damage,” says Dr. Sutherland.

“What is clear from our research is that prenatal alcohol exposure has lifelong effects. It’s not a developmental delay. Prenatal alcohol exposure is an injury.”

Could there be a cure? Perhaps, because better understanding of the damage done to the brain may lead to ways to repair it. But Dr. Sutherland emphasizes that at the moment scientists do not even know precisely what the brain defect is.

“Education and prevention are key right now,” he says. “If we look at the total cost to raise a child to age 21, it’s estimated that in Canada we spend $1 million extra for every child who has been exposed to alcohol prenatally. Do the math and it very quickly makes sense to have prevention programs.”

Dr. Sutherland is one of a number of high-calibre scientists who have been recruited to Alberta universities over the past several years. After completing postdoctoral work at the University of Lethbridge, he left Canada to take a faculty position at the University of New Mexico. He returned to Lethbridge in 2001, attracted by substantial research funding from AHFMR and by the establishment of the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge. This internationally recognized research facility is home to 10 principal investigators who are exploring the complex relationships between the brain and behaviour.

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