Drinking alcohol during pregnancy changes the structure of the child’s brain!

A new MRI study reveals that even low-to-moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy can alter the structure of a baby’s brain 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).

said the study’s senior author, Gregor Kasprian, associate professor of radiology from the Department of Biomedical Imaging and Image-Targeted Therapy for the Medical University of Vienna in Austria.

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can expose the fetus to a group of conditions called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Children born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can develop learning disabilities, behavioral problems, or speech and language delays.

“Unfortunately, many pregnant women are not aware of the effect of alcohol on the fetus during pregnancy,” said lead author Patrick Kienast, MD, PhD. Student at the Department of Biomedical Imaging and Image-Targeted Therapy, Department of Neuroradiology and Musculoskeletal Radiology at the Medical University of Vienna. “Therefore, it is our responsibility not only to conduct research, but also to actively educate the public about the effects of alcohol on the fetus.”

For the study, the researchers analyzed the MRI scans of 24 fetuses who were exposed to alcohol before birth. Fetuses were between 22 and 36 weeks gestational age at the time of the MRI. Exposure to alcohol was determined through 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 quantifies drinking risk.

In fetuses with alcohol exposure, the total fetal maturation score (fTMS) was significantly lower than in age-matched controls, and the right superior temporal sulcus (STS) was shallow. STS is involved in social cognition, audiovisual integration, and language perception.

“We found the largest changes in the temporal brain region and the STS,” said Dr. Kasparian. “We know that this region, specifically the formation of the STS, has a significant impact on language development during childhood.”

Brain changes have been seen in fetuses even at low levels of alcohol exposure.

“Seventeen of the 24 mothers drank alcohol relatively infrequently, with the average alcohol consumption being less than one alcoholic drink per week,” said Dr. Kienast. “However, we were able to detect significant changes in these fetuses based on prenatal MRI scans.”

Three moms drank one to three times a week, and two moms drank four to six cups a week. One mom consumes an average of 14 or more drinks per week. Six mothers also reported at least one event of binge drinking (more than four drinks on one occasion) during pregnancy.

According to the researchers, the fetal brain developmental delay could be related specifically to a late stage of myelogenesis and less distinct gyrus in the frontal and occipital lobes.

Myelination is critical to the function of the brain and nervous system. Myelin protects nerve cells, allowing them to transmit information faster. Important developmental milestones in infants, as rolling over, crawling, and language processing are directly related to myelination.

Distortion refers to the formation of folds in the cerebral cortex. This folding expands the surface area of ​​the cortex with limited space in the skull, enabling an increase in cognitive performance. When rotation diminishes, jobs are reduced.

“Pregnant women should strictly avoid alcohol consumption,” said Dr. Kienast. “As we showed in our study, even low levels of alcohol consumption can lead to structural changes in brain development and delay brain maturation.”

It is unclear how these structural changes will affect brain development in these babies after birth.

“To accurately assess this, we need to wait for the babies who were scanned as fetuses at that time until they are a little older, so we can invite them back in for further scans,” said Dr. Kienast. “However, we can strongly hypothesize that the changes we detected contribute to the cognitive and behavioral difficulties that may occur during childhood.”

Co-authors are Marlene Stuempflen, MD, Daniela Prayer, MD, Benjamin Sigl, MD, Mariana Schuette, MD, Ph.D. and Sarah Glatter, MD, MMSc.

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