Study: Alcohol Exposure in Pregnancy Changes Embryo Gene Function

Prenatal alcohol exposure can cause a wide range of physical, mental, and neurodevelopmental conditions in children, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Yet not much is known about how alcohol causes these effects.

Recently, scientists from the University of Helsinki, Finland, looked at how alcohol might disrupt the gene expression in embryos which may cause developmental disorders such as FASD. The study appears in BMC Medicine.

To conduct the research, the team obtained placenta samples from 80 newborns exposed to alcohol during gestation. They also acquired samples from the placentas of 100 newborns who were not exposed.

In addition, the scientists separated and analyzed placenta samples from mothers who only consumed alcohol up to a maximum of 7 weeks gestation. The researchers also cultured embryonic stem cells and exposed them to alcohol to determine alcohol’s impact on early human cell development.

Compared to the controls, the placenta epigenomes of the alcohol-exposed samples showed a significant decrease in the amount of DNA methylation. DNA methylation is a process in the body where methyl groups are added to a DNA molecule, which can change the activity of a DNA segment.

The research team also found a similar result among the alcohol-exposed cultured stem cells and in the placentas of mothers who drank alcohol up to the 7th week of pregnancy. According to the study, this means the impact of alcohol exposure may happen early on in the gestational period.

In placenta tissue, alcohol also induced changes in the DPPA4 gene. In addition, alcohol exposure changed this gene in embryonic stem cells that lean towards neurological development.

Moreover, exposure to alcohol was associated with DNA methylation changes in the FOXP2 gene. This gene is related to the development of brain regions responsible for speech.

The scientists suggest that these alterations in DNA methylation are associated with alcohol exposure and not other factors such as maternal smoking. Still, the scientist note, the effects of smoking, prescription medications, or other drugs cannot be excluded entirely.

Furthermore, the alcohol-exposed newborns in the study did not differ from the controls in weight or height. But they did have a smaller head size. The research team suggests this could indicate that early prenatal alcohol exposure may impact brain development.

The team proposes that these novel findings identify candidate genes for alcohol-induced development disorders, including FASD, and may reveal potential biomarkers for alcohol exposure.


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