In a new study, researchers found that mothers who drink moderate to high levels of alcohol during pregnancy may be changing their babies’ DNA.
The finding may make it easier to test children for prenatal alcohol exposure and enable early diagnosis and intervention that can help improve the children’s lives.
The research was led by a team from Rutgers University.
Previous research from the group has shown that binge and heavy drinking may trigger a long-lasting genetic change in adults.
In the current study, the researchers examined alcohol-induced DNA changes in 30 pregnant women and 359 children.
They found changes to two genes, POMC and PER2, in women who drank at moderate to high levels of alcohol during pregnancy and in children who had been exposed to those levels of alcohol in the womb.
POMC could regulate the stress-response system, and PER2 could influence the body’s biological clock.
Heavy drinking in women is four or more drinks on at least five occasions in a month. Moderate drinking in women is about three drinks per occasion.
The study also found that infants exposed to alcohol in the womb, which passes from the mother’s blood through the umbilical cord, had increased levels of cortisol.
This is a potentially harmful stress hormone that can suppress the immune system and lead to ongoing health issues.
The team says the findings may help scientists identify biomarkers—measurable indicators such as altered genes or proteins—that predict the risks from prenatal alcohol exposure.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can include physical or intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning problems.
While there is no cure, early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant.
The lead author of the study is Dipak K. Sarkar, a Distinguished Professor and director of the Endocrine Program in the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
The study is published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
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