Alcohol and Pregnancy: The Two Don't Mix

In much of the western world, including the United States, alcohol is number one on the list of most commonly abused substances. There are significant health and societal issues for the teen or adult alcohol consumer that will not be addressed here. Today we will discuss alcohol use during pregnancy and note that serious effects can be seen in the developing baby.

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) can occur when pregnant women drink alcohol. It is often characterized by growth deficiencies, central nervous system problems including developmental delays and mild to moderate levels of retardation, and characteristic facial features.

Because there is no diagnostic test for FAS, diagnosis is clinically determined by noting the characteristic facial features and neurobehavioral problems. FAS is more common than Down Syndrome and is the leading cause of mental retardation in much of the world. Prevalence estimates for FAS in the United States are 2-3 per 1000 live births; however, it has recently been proposed that long-term exposure to lower alcohol levels may approach 1 per 100 live births. Even lower alcohol amounts with chronic exposure can result in learning disabilities, attention deficiencies and impairments in judgment and decision making abilities that may not be apparent until later in childhood.

Until recently the mechanism by which alcohol affects neurological development was little understood. A recent animal study by Dr. Susan Smith at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that alcohol decomposition releases calcium that “has an immediate and devastating effect on certain neurological cells.”

The study involved injecting alcohol into chicken eggs that contained developing chick embryos and chemicals that served to highlight neuronal activity. Microscopic examination of the embryos tracked the release of calcium and how it affected developing neurological cells causing cell death. Choosing chick embryos for fetal alcohol research is ideal because the genes and cell types involved in facial bone and cartilage structure are similar in chickens and humans according to Smith. An additional objective of this research is to determine why certain cells are more susceptible to alcohol than other cell types.

Societal concerns and costs of treating fetal alcohol exposures are significant both financially and emotionally. There are specific points that all expectant women should remember:


    • Alcohol intake by the mother is shared with the unborn child. If mother drinks, baby drinks!
    • The quantity of safe alcohol intake is not known…it is best to abstain if pregnant or planning a pregnancy
    • FAS is the leading cause of mental retardation in many countries