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Heavy Prenatal Alcohol Linked to Childhood Brain Development Problems

Heavy drinking during pregnancy disrupts proper brain development in children and adolescents years after they were exposed to alcohol in the womb, according to a study supported by the National Institutes of Health. The study is the first to track children over several years to examine how heavy exposure to alcohol in utero affects brain growth over time.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, researchers found that brain growth patterns in children whose mothers drank heavily while pregnant differed from normal patterns of development seen in children who were not exposed to alcohol before birth.

The findings suggest that children with heavy alcohol exposure have decreased brain plasticity – the brain's ability to grow and remodel itself based on experience with the outside world. Such adaptation continues throughout one’s life and is crucial to learning new skills and adapting to the environment.

"This study documents the long-term impact of heavy prenatal alcohol exposure on brain development," said Ken R. Warren, Ph.D., acting director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which provided most of the funding for the study.

"It underscores that heavy drinking during pregnancy often has lasting consequences for the child’s growth and development, and reminds us that women who are, who may be, or who are trying to become pregnant, should not drink alcohol."

During normal development, brain volume increases rapidly at a young age as new neural connections are formed, and then decreases in certain regions during adolescence as underused brain connections are cleared away to increase efficiency. While unexposed children showed this pattern of robust growth and reduction in the brain’s outmost layer, known as the cerebral cortex, those heavily exposed to alcohol typically only lost cortical volume.

Among the 70 children in the study who had been heavily exposed to alcohol in utero (13 drinks per week throughout the pregnancy, on average), the pattern of static growth was most evident in the rear portions of the brain — particularly the parietal cortex, which is thought to be involved in selective attention and producing planned movement.

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