By now, most of us know that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can harm the developing fetus. But a new study finds that drinking alcohol as early as three to four weeks into pregnancy—which is before many women even realize they are pregnant—may alter gene functioning in the fetal brain and cause long-term changes in brain structure.
The study, conducted in mice and published in the journal PLOS ONE, also found changes in gene functioning in other body tissues caused by alcohol consumption in early pregnancy.
The researchers gave alcohol to pregnant mice during the first eight days of gestation, which is equivalent to three to four weeks of human gestation. They studied how early alcohol exposure influenced the epigenome of the hippocampus among offspring—that region of the brain plays an important role in memory and learning. The offspring that were exposed to alcohol showed altered epigenomes, which led to changes in the function of several genes in the hippocampus. The researchers also identified changes in gene function in bone marrow and the olfactory (smell) senses.
Alcohol-exposed mice offspring showed symptoms similar to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in humans, including reduced growth rate, structural changes to the face and skull and hyperactivity, the researchers noted. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy has already been linked to increased risk of a growth restriction, intellectual and learning disabilities, poor memory, poor coordination and speech and language delays.
The message is clear: If you are even thinking of getting pregnant, stop drinking alcohol before you start trying.