Scientists at the Pompeu Fabra University have described the effects of binge drinking on pregnancy during the development of the nervous system. One episode of heavy drinking a week is enough to cause serious failures in the offspring that continue into adulthood. Alcohol affects the immune system of the newborn, which in turn attacks the neurons, causing damage to learning, memory and behavior.
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy produces malformations and serious alterations in the newborn. In fact, there is a name for these disorders: fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Despite being easily avoidable, FASDs (which include a wide range of physical, cognitive and behavioral abnormalities that continue throughout adult life) continue to be the cause of most neurodevelopmental disorders, affecting between 2 and 5% of Western European population.
For this reason, a group of researchers from the University Pompeu Fabra (UPF) decided to study what happens when alcohol consumption during pregnancy does not occur continuously, but follows a sporadic and binge pattern, using mouse models.
According to their results, one episode of heavy drinking a week during gestation is sufficient to cause important alterations in behavior. “Our study reveals alterations in brain neurons that result in severe anomalies in the behavior of offspring,” says Olga Valverde, leader of the study. “However, there are no malformations or changes in the body weight of offspring, so the disorder is invisible at birth.”
Changes to adulthood
Alcohol disrupts the embryonic development of the central nervous system, causing long-term poor cognitive and behavioral function. In addition, it has been shown that alcohol can strongly activate the immune system that protects the function of neurons, contributing to brain damage and neurodegeneration in adolescents and adults.
“We have observed an increase in certain proinflammatory factors in the brains of offspring affected by maternal sporadic consumption of alcohol,” says Valverde. This imbalance causes the immune system to attack the myelin, a cellular layer that surrounds the nerve and that facilitates that the electrical impulses are transmitted efficiently along the neurons and therefore, that the nervous message is transmitted.
“Probably, exposure to alcohol causes changes in the immune system that persist into adulthood, affecting learning, memory and behavior,” she adds.
“For the time being we do not know whether persistent neurobehavioral dysfunctions are related to neuroinflammation or myelin alterations, but according to our results, anti-inflammatories should be considered as a possible treatment to prevent brain damage caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy,” concludes Valverde.