Researchers have concluded that no amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy at any time.
The team, including experts from the University of Aberdeen, have taken a major step forward in understanding how expectant mothers’ consumption of alcohol affects foetal brain development.
The international group investigated the biological changes in the brain that drive foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) using complex network theory to analyse brain signals. Their findings are published in the journal Chaos.
Researchers, including Professor Celso Grebogi from the University’s Institute for Complex Systems and Mathematical Biology (ICSMB) and Professor Lin Gao – a long-term visiting researcher at ICSMB, found that teenagers who were exposed to alcohol while in the womb showed altered brain connections that were consistent with impaired cognitive performance.
Their findings were reached by measuring the responses from a brain imaging technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG) and then analysing them with tools developed using chaos theory.
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The group’s efforts mark one of the first times researchers have been able to quantify in detail the effects of amount of alcohol exposure on the developing brain.
FASDs are one of the leading causes of intellectual disability worldwide and are linked to a wide array of neurological issues including ADHD.
While the prevailing theory links expectant mothers’ alcohol consumption to cognitive impairments for children, questions about the extent of this effect remain. Despite the known link, researchers are uncertain about the precise mechanism by which alcohol alters the developing brain.
“Our study, involving brain connectivity and cognition, combined with mathematical modelling, shows that there is no safe amount or safe stages during pregnancy for alcohol consumption”, according to Celso Grebogi.
“Furthermore, there is not only loss of connectivity in the brain, but this may result in cognitive impairments such autism, schizophrenia, dementia.”
Previous attempts to study the brain circuitry in affected individuals have been hampered by the difficulty in drawing conclusions from complicated MEG data.
To get to the heart of the problem, members of the team developed a sophisticated computer technique called Cortical Spatio-Temporal multi-dipole analysis that could identify which areas of the brain were active when research participants were in the MEG machine.
Data was collected from FASD patients and 21 healthy volunteers without FASDs, and revealed several areas of the brain that showed impaired connectivity among the FASD group.
Specifically, subjects who were exposed to alcohol in the womb were more likely to have issues with connections through their corpus callosum, the band of brain tissue that connects the left and right halves of the brain. Deficits in this area have been reported in people with schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, autism, depression and abnormalities in sensation.
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Lin Gao, the leading author in the paper, elaborated, “This work presents major evidence that children exposed to alcohol prenatally are at risk of suffering from impaired cognitive abilities and other secondary factors.
“Our study shows that there is no safe amount or safe stages during pregnancy for alcohol consumption.
“We all hope this work inspires other groups to conduct similarly collaborative research on disorders like FASD that benefit from drawing together medical and computational fields.”