Expectant mothers are recommended to completely avoid alcohol during pregnancy. While new information is regularly gained by ongoing research, it has long been understood that alcohol certainly provides no benefit to the fetus. Instead, the use of alcohol during pregnancy has been linked to major cognitive and physical development problems.
A newer study adds to the body of research that supports the abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy. A team of researchers presented findings during the annual gathering of the Radiological Society of North America that provide evidence that changes in brain structure and metabolism are evident through the use of imaging tools.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is the term used for the various problems that can result from an expectant mother using alcohol during pregnancy. Not only is fetal alcohol syndrome a significant personal challenge, but it is also a serious public health problem, with costs of care estimated to be about $4 billion each year.
Using three types of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a team of researchers in Poland were able to show the specific changes in the brain resulting from alcohol use during pregnancy that contribute to the problems experienced by children with fetal alcohol syndrome.
The study examined 200 children exposed to alcohol during fetal development and compared the results with those of 30 children whose mothers abstained from alcohol both while pregnant and while breastfeeding.
MRI scans were used to measure the shape and size of the corpus callosum. That is a section of nerve fibers which make communication between the left and right sides of the brain possible. In children with fetal alcohol syndrome, there was impairment in the corpus callosum, or the nerve fibers were not visible at all.
Statistically, the children with fetal alcohol syndrome exhibited a significantly higher rate of thinning of the nerve fibers in the corpous callosum when compared with healthy children.
Andrzej Urbanik, M.D. chair of the Department of Radiology at Jagiellonian University in Krakow explained that the differences noted were strongly implicated in psychological problems found in children.
In addition, the team used another type of imagine called diffusion weighted imaging to examine several areas of the central nervous system in the children. Diffusion is especially useful in detecting tissue abnormalities.
The children exposed to alcohol during fetal development had a significantly higher level of diffusion when compared with the healthy children. Finally, using a third type of imaging called proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the researchers were able to detect a high level of metabolic changes in the children with fetal alcohol syndrome.
The findings add new insight to the recommendation that mothers should carefully avoid alcohol during pregnancy.