Researchers shared a sobering study about the impact just one alcoholic beverage a week during pregnancy can have on the baby’s brain.
Babies exposed to even low to moderate amounts of alcohol had the shape of their brains physically altered and delayed brain development.
The babies had a shallower right superior sulcus (STS), which is associated with cognition and language, according to the study being presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
Alcohol can alter the structure of cells, reducing their protective coating and the number of interconnections between cells.
“As we show in our study, even low levels of alcohol consumption can lead to structural changes in brain development and delayed brain maturation,” lead author of the study Dr. Patric Kienast, a neurologist at the Medical University of Vienna, said.
The researchers looked at MRI scans of the brains of 24 fetuses exposed to alcohol between 22 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. Mothers self-reported alcohol consumption through an anonymous survey.
Of the mothers, 17 drank less than one alcoholic beverage a week, three had one to three drinks a week, two had up to six drinks a week and one had more than 14 a week. Six mothers conceded to binge drinking at least once during pregnancy, having more than four drinks at once.
Exposure to alcohol during the embryonic stage — the first eight weeks of development — can have extremely negative effects depending on the cells affected, which range from birth defects to miscarriage.
But the biggest effect is behavioral changes. The alterations of the cells can affect brain design, memory storage, speed processing, and the ability to analyze or make decisions.
“Pregnant women should strictly avoid alcohol consumption,” the lead author of the study Dr. Kienast said.
According to the CDCone in ten women in the US consume alcohol to some extent during pregnancy.
“Unfortunately, many pregnant women are unaware of the influence of alcohol on the fetus during pregnancy,” he added. “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.”
Dr. Kienast plans to do more scans on the infants after they are born in order to see how alcohol consumption during pregnancy affected their development.
“We can strongly assume that the changes we discovered contribute to the cognitive and behavioral difficulties that may occur during childhood,” he said.
The impact of drinking small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy has led to debate and other study findings, including some claiming it doesn’t hurt the baby.