By Mark Waghorn via SWNS
Even the odd tipple can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) - a range of developmental problems.
They include learning disabilities, behavioral issues and speech and language difficulties.
"Unfortunately, many pregnant women are unaware of the influence of alcohol on the fetus during pregnancy," said lead author Dr. Patric Kienast.
"Therefore, it is our responsibility not only to do the research but also to actively educate the public about the effects of alcohol on the fetus."
Doctors recommend total abstention for moms to be. It is estimated at least one in ten ignore the advice.
The findings are based on an analysis of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans of 24 fetuses exposed to alcohol in the womb.
They were between 22 and 36 weeks of gestation at the time and identified via surveys of Austrian mothers' drinking habits.
It was part of a surveillance project called PRAMS (Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System). The questionnaire called T-ACE screens for risky drinking.
Senior author Proffesor Gregor Kasprian said: "Fetal MRI is a highly specialized and safe examination method that allows us to make accurate statements about brain maturation prenatally."
Brain development, known as the fetal total maturation score (fTMS), was significantly reduced compared to age-matched controls.
In particular, the right superior temporal sulcus (STS) was shallower, said the Medical University of Vienna team.
The STS is involved in social cognition, audiovisual integration and language perception.
"We found the greatest changes in the temporal brain region and STS," Kasprian said.
"We know this region, and specifically the formation of the STS, has a great influence on language development during childhood."
Babies with FAS may have specific physical features such as small eyes, a thin upper lip and a smooth area under the nose.
Other problems include mental deficits, malformations of bones and major organs, inhibited growth and central nervous system illnesses.
Children with FAS may also suffer from poor motor skills, higher mortality rates and difficulties with learning, memory, social interaction, and attention span.
One in 70 pregnancies with alcohol exposure results in FAS. It is a worldwide problem in western countries. Changes were seen even at low levels.
"Seventeen of 24 mothers drank alcohol relatively infrequently, with average alcohol consumption of less than one alcoholic drink per week," Kienast said.
"Nevertheless, we were able to detect significant changes in these fetuses based on prenatal MRI.”
Three mothers consumed one to three drinks a week - and two four to six. One consumed an average of 14 or more every week.
Six also reported at least one binge drinking event - exceeding four on one occasion - during pregnancy.
Delayed fetal brain development could be specifically related to phenomena known as myelination and gyrification.
The former is critical to brain and nervous system function in the frontal and occipital lobes.
Myelin protects nerve cells, allowing them to transmit information faster. Important developmental milestones in infants, as rolling over, crawling and language processing are directly linked to myelination.
Gyrification refers to folding of the cerebral cortex which enlarges the surface area with limited space in the skull - enabling an increase in cognitive performance. When gyrification is diminished, functionality is reduced.
"Pregnant women should strictly avoid alcohol consumption," Kienast said.
"As we show in our study, even low levels of alcohol consumption can lead to structural changes in brain development and delayed brain maturation."
It is unclear how these structural changes will affect brain development in these babies after birth.
"To assess this accurately, we need to wait for the children who were examined as fetuses at that time to get a little older, so that we can invite them back for further examinations," Kienast said.
"However, we can strongly assume that the changes we discovered contribute to the cognitive and behavioral difficulties that may occur during childhood."
The study was presented at a Radiological Society of North America meeting in Chicago.
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