No amount of alcohol safe during pregnancy

Major step forward in study of brain circuitry sheds light on effect of alcohol on foetal brain development

Wednesday 29th May 2019

An international team of researchers has taken a ‘major step forward’ in understanding how expectant mothers’ alcohol consumption affects foetal brain development.

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”, explains Professor Celso Grebogi from the University of Aberdeen’s institute for complex systems and mathematical biology.

“Furthermore, there is not only loss of connectivity in the brain, but this may result in cognitive impairments such autism, schizophrenia, dementia.”

The team’s efforts mark one of the first times researchers have been able to quantify in detail the effects of amounts of alcohol on the developing brain.

Biological changes in the brain that drive foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) were investigated by a group of researchers, which included experts from the University of Aberdeen, using ‘complex network theory’ to analyse brain signals.

FASDs are one of the leading causes of intellectual disability worldwide and can take a variety of forms, including some types of learning disabilities, balance problems, and attention and hyperactivity problems.

The research, carried out through the University’s institute for complex systems and mathematical biology, found that teenagers exposed to alcohol while in the womb showed altered brain connections that were consistent with impaired cognitive performance.

The 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’.

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 FASDs patients and 21 healthy volunteers without FASDs, and revealed several areas of the brain that showed impaired connectivity among the FASDs 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.

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.”