New research has found that there may be a risk to fetuses by mothers who drink prior to learning they are pregnant.
The research has found that in mice, drinking alcohol within even the first three weeks of pregnancy may create changes in the genes of the embryo that can result in permanent damage.
Although the research only pertains to mice thus far, it could have implications for humans, as well. The researchers suggest that women consider cutting out alcohol from their lives as soon as they make a decision to try and get pregnant or if they remotely suspect they are pregnant.
“Our findings suggest that alcohol can harm fetus in early pregnancy, a time period when women are often not aware of their pregnancy,” Dr. Nina Kaminen-Ahola, a biologist at the University of Helsinki and the study’s lead author, said. “Therefore, it would be good to decrease the alcohol consumption as soon as one plans to have a baby.”
At this point, it’s still too early to say how much alcohol consumption it would take to harm a human fetus during early pregnancy, and more research is needed in order to provide specific guidelines.
In the study, the researchers fed alcohol to female mice who were at a stage of pregnancy that is equivalent to three to four weeks of human pregnancy. They found that the mice pups exhibited symptoms similar to human fetal alcohol syndrome, including hyperactivity, decreased growth rate and structural changes to the face and skull.
The damage occurred because early exposure to alcohol created changes in the embryo’s epigenome — the set of chemical compounds that regulate the genome — which led to alterations in the expression of genes in the brains of the infant mice. These changes were observed in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning, memory and emotion that is known to be heavily affected by alcohol. Researchers also found changes in the bone marrow of the infant mice, and in some tissue within the mouse’s snout that plays a role in the sense of smell.
Because early pregnancy is a critical time for cell division and differentiation, the embryo is vulnerable to external influences at this stage, and any changes can become widespread because the cells are rapidly dividing.