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Alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been associated with a number of detrimental effects for children including such things as restricted growth, lower intellect, learning disabilities, memory issues, poor physical coordination, and other developmental delays. Researchers at the University Of Helsinki, Finland have suggested that alcohol exposure very early in pregnancy could lead to lifelong changes to the gene regulation mechanism in embryonic stem cells . Embryonic stem cells are the earliest cells to develop an embryo and have the potential to become any of several different types of cells later on in development.
The researchers fed alcohol to a group of pregnant mice during their first eight days of pregnancy, which is the equivalent of three to four weeks gestation in human beings. The researchers found that when compared to the offspring of pregnant mice not exposed to alcohol the alcohol exposed mice showed altered epigenomes which led to changes in the function of genes located in the hippocampus of the brain, the olfactory epithelium in the nasal area, and in bone marrow. The hippocampus is the brain area that is extremely important in learning and memory in mammals and is primarily responsible for encoding information and forming new memories . Later the alcohol-exposed mice demonstrated symptoms that are similar to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in humans.
These results suggest that pregnant women who use alcohol long before most women are tested to see if they are pregnant risk serious detrimental effects to the fetus. The current research also has implications for determining if a newborn has suffered any effects of prenatal alcohol exposure as these changes could be used as biomarkers to diagnose Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. By using a simple swipe from inside the baby's mouth at birth doctors and parents could receive information about any alcohol-exposure related damage to the newborn.
 Early maternal alcohol consumption alters hippocampal DNA methylation, gene expression and volume in a mouse model, Nina Kaminen-Ahola , et al., PLOS ONE.
 Hatfield, R.C. (2013). The everything guide to the human brain. Avon, MA: Adams.
Dr. Hatfield is a clinical neuropsychologist with extensive experience assessing and treating neurological and psychiatric disorders. His areas of expertise include neurobiology, behavior, dementia, head injury, addiction, abnormal psychology, personality disorders, statistics, rehabilitation psychology and research methodology.