New discoveries about the mechanism underlying fetal alcohol syndrome may help medical researchers offer new hope to parents of children with the condition. Even small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy—even early on, before a woman necessarily knows she’s pregnant—can carry a risk of damage, which is one reason as many as one in 100 infants in the United States are born with the condition.
In fact, according to one researcher, alcohol consumption during pregnancy is the single biggest cause of preventable birth defects and developmental delays. These problems vary from child to child but are usually irreversible once they develop; effects of maternal drinking include joint deformities, certain facial features, impaired sight or hearing, small head circumference, mental retardation, or learning disabilities, as well as other symptoms.
Alcohol consumed by the mother during pregnancy isn’t filtered by the placenta, meaning when she drinks, the fetus drinks too. However, the fetus takes longer to completely process alcohol than an adult does, and so the effects of it are greater—and more serious in still-developing bodies and brains than in a full-grown adult. Any alcohol consumption at any time carries some risk; the central nervous system seems to be particularly vulnerable during the first trimester but there’s some degree of risk throughout the pregnancy. The more alcohol the mother-to-be drinks, the greater the danger is.
The culprit appears to be proteins called L1 molecules. Ordinarily, L1 molecules help keep cells together by allowing them to grasp their neighbors firmly when needed. However, these proteins are highly sensitive to alcohol in those with a particular genetic predisposition, and in these cases alcohol deactivates the L1 and affects cellular cohesion. Now that researchers have learned how alcohol effects the deactivation process, it opens up the possibility that they can develop medications and techniques to counteract it. However, these treatments would still need to be given during pregnancy, when there are indications that alcohol may have affected the fetus, to be effective.