Alcohol use by expectant mothers can lead to problems with the mental and physical development of their children — a condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome. Research suggests an incidence of 0.2 to 1.5 per 1,000 live births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Costs for care of individuals affected by fetal alcohol syndrome in the U.S. have been estimated at $4 billion annually.
Advancements in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are affording unprecedented insights into the effects of alcohol on the central nervous systems of children whose mothers drank alcohol during their pregnancy. Recently, researchers in Poland used three different MRI techniques to better define these effects.
The study group included 200 children who were exposed to alcohol during their fetal stage and 30 children whose mothers did not drink while pregnant or during lactation. Researchers used MRI to evaluate the size and shape of the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers that forms the major communication link between the right and left halves of the brain, in the two groups. Prenatal alcohol exposure is the major cause of impaired development or complete absence of the corpus callosum.
The MRI results showed statistically significant thinning of the corpus callosum in the children exposed to alcohol compared with the other group.
“These changes are strongly associated with psychological problems in children,” said Andrzej Urbanik, M.D., chair of the Department of Radiology at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.