It’s possible that drinking alcohol while pregnant will affect how the baby’s brain develops. A recent MRI research found that drinking alcohol during pregnancy, even at low to moderate amounts, can change the baby’s brain shape and hinder brain development. The results of the study will be presented at the annual conference of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) the following week.
“Fetal MRI is a highly specialized and safe examination method that allows us to make accurate statements about brain maturation prenatally,” said study senior author Gregor Kasprian, M.D., associate professor of radiology from the Department of Biomedical Imaging and Image-guided Therapy of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria.
Fetal alcohol spectrum diseases are a range of ailments that can affect the foetus if alcohol is used while pregnant. Babies born with foetal alcohol spectrum diseases may experience developmental delays in speech and language, learning impairments, or behavioural issues. “Unfortunately, many pregnant women are unaware of the influence of alcohol on the fetus during pregnancy,” said lead author Patric Kienast, M.D., a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biomedical Imaging and Image-Guided Therapy, Division of Neuroradiology and Musculoskeletal Radiology at the Medical University of Vienna. “Therefore, it is our responsibility not only to do the research but also to actively educate the public about the effects of alcohol on the fetus.”
Researchers examined MRI scans of 24 babies who had prenatal alcohol consumption for the study. At the time of the MRI, the foetuses ranged in gestational age from 22 to 36 weeks. Anonymous surveys given to the moms helped identify the mothers’ alcohol exposure. The T-ACE Screening Instrument, a measuring tool of four questions that identifies risk drinking, and the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS), a surveillance initiative of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health departments, were the questionnaires utilised.
The right superior temporal sulcus (STS) was shallower and the foetal total maturation score (fTMS) was considerably lower in alcohol-exposed foetuses than in age-matched controls. Language perception, audiovisual integration, and social cognition are all influenced by the STS.
“We found the greatest changes in the temporal brain region and STS,” Dr. Kasprian said. “We know that this region, and specifically the formation of the STS, has a great influence on language development during childhood.”
Brain changes were seen in the fetuses even at low levels of alcohol exposure.
“Seventeen of 24 mothers drank alcohol relatively infrequently, with average alcohol consumption of less than one alcoholic drink per week,” Dr. Kienast said. “Nevertheless, we were able to detect significant changes in these fetuses based on prenatal MRI.”
Two moms drank four to six drinks a week, while three mothers consumed one to three. One mother had at least 14 drinks each week on average. Additionally, six moms reported having at least one binge drinking incident (more than four drinks on one occasion) when they were pregnant. The researchers hypothesised that a delayed stage of myelination and a less defined gyrification in the frontal and occipital lobes were specifically responsible for the delayed foetal brain development.
The operation of the nervous system and the brain depends on the myelination process. Nerve cells are shielded by myelin, which speeds up information transmission. Myelination has a direct role in crucial newborn developmental milestones like rolling over, crawling, and language development.
“Pregnant women should strictly avoid alcohol consumption,” Dr. Kienast said. “As we show in our study, even low levels of alcohol consumption can lead to structural changes in brain development and delayed brain maturation.” It is unknown how these anatomical alterations may impact the postnatal brain development of these infants.
“To assess this accurately, we need to wait for the children who were examined as fetuses at that time to get a little older, so that we can invite them back for further examinations,” Dr. Kienast said. “However, we can strongly assume that the changes we discovered contribute to the cognitive and behavioral difficulties that may occur during childhood.”