Summary: Pregnant women who drink small to moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy risk altering their baby’s brain structure and delaying its development.
A new MRI study has found that drinking even low to moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can alter the baby’s brain structure and delay brain development. The results of the study will be presented next week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).
“Fetal MRI is a highly specialized and safe method of examination that allows us to make accurate statements about brain maturation before birth,” said study lead author Gregor Kasprian, MD, Professor Associate of Radiology in the Department of Biomedical Imaging and Image-Guided Therapy. Medical University of Vienna in Austria.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can put the fetus at risk for a group of conditions called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Babies born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder could develop learning disabilities, behavioral problems, or speech and language delays.
“Unfortunately, many pregnant women are unaware of the influence of alcohol on the fetus during pregnancy,” said lead author Patric Kienast, MD, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biomedical Imaging and of image-guided therapy, Division of Neuroradiology and Musculoskeletal Radiology at the Medical University of Vienna.
“Therefore, it is our responsibility not only to do research, but also to actively educate the public about the effects of alcohol on the fetus.”
For the study, the researchers analyzed MRI scans of 24 fetuses exposed to alcohol before birth. The fetuses were between 22 and 36 weeks gestation at the time of the MRI. Alcohol exposure was determined by anonymous surveys of mothers.
The questionnaires used were the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS), a surveillance project of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health departments, and the T-ACE Screening Tool, a four-question measurement tool that identifies drug use. at risk.
In alcohol-exposed fetuses, the fetal total maturation score (fTMS) was significantly lower than in age-matched controls, and the right superior temporal sulcus (STS) was shallower. The STS is involved in social cognition, audiovisual integration and language perception.
“We found the greatest changes in the temporal region of the brain and the STS,” Dr. Kasprian said. “We know that this region, and specifically the formation of the STS, has a great influence on childhood language development.”
Brain changes have been observed in fetuses, even at low levels of alcohol exposure.
“Seventeen of the 24 mothers drank alcohol relatively infrequently, with an 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.”
Three mothers drank one to three glasses per week and two mothers drank four to six glasses per week. A mother consumed an average of 14 drinks or more per week. Six mothers also reported at least one binge drinking event (more than four drinks on one occasion) during pregnancy.
According to the researchers, delayed fetal brain development may be specifically related to a delayed stage of myelination and less distinct gyrification in the frontal and occipital lobes.
The process of myelination is essential for the functioning of the brain and nervous system. Myelin protects nerve cells, allowing them to transmit information more quickly. Important developmental milestones in infants, such as rolling over, crawling and processing language, are directly linked to myelination.
Gyrification refers to the formation of folds in the cerebral cortex. This folding enlarges the surface of the cortex with a limited space in the skull, allowing an increase in cognitive performance. When gyrification is decreased, functionality is reduced.
“Pregnant women should strictly avoid the consumption of alcohol,” Dr. Kienast said. “As we show in our study, even low levels of alcohol consumption can cause structural changes in brain development and delay brain maturation.”
It is not known how these structural changes will affect the brain development of these babies after birth.
“To assess this accurately, we need to wait until the children who were examined as fetuses at this time get a little older, so that we can invite them to come back for further examinations,” said Dr Kienast. . “However, we can strongly assume that the changes we discovered contribute to the cognitive and behavioral difficulties that can arise during childhood.”
Co-authors are Marlene Stuempflen, MD, Daniela Prayer, MD, Benjamin Sigl, MD, Mariana Schuette, MD, Ph.D., and Sarah Glatter, MD, MMSc.
About this alcohol research and brain development news
Original research: Results will be presented at the 108th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America