4. June 2024

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has long been a debated topic, especially because of its potential negative effects on the baby's development. Research conducted by the European Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood (ELSPAC) and the follow-up Health Brain Age (HBA) neuroimaging study has provided new evidence suggesting that even moderate drinking during pregnancy can have long-term consequences on a child's brain development and function in adulthood.

The research team, consisting of scientists from CEITEC Masaryk University, RECETOX Masaryk University and the University of Toronto, followed a group of 191 young adults aged 28–30, approximately half of whom were male. These individuals were part of the ELSPAC prenatal cohort, were born in 1991–1992 in South Moravia, and underwent neuroimaging in young adulthood using structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI and fMRI) focused on the function of a network of brain centers related to reward. These young adults also completed a questionnaire regarding their substance use.

Information regarding alcohol consumption before conception and in mid-pregnancy was provided by the mothers of participants in the ELSPAC study in the early 1990s. Their children were then followed up for the next 30 years and completed a task during the MRI scans at the age of 28–30 years in which they tried to gain and also not lose as many points as possible. The researchers looked at how the brains of these young adults responded to rewards and potential losses, and how often these young adults used addictive substances. They were also interested in whether any long-term effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on brain function and substance use differed between men and women. "The results showed that even moderate alcohol drinking during pregnancy, but not before conception, has a significant effect on brain responses to rewards and increases the likelihood of marijuana smoking in offspring, regardless of gender. Specifically, it has been shown that exposure to alcohol in mid-pregnancy is associated with different function of many brain regions in young adulthood and more frequent marijuana smoking throughout life, and that these effects persist even if we take into account other influences such as the mother’s education or depression during pregnancy. Alcohol consumed by a pregnant woman can easily cross the placenta to the fetus and can directly affect the child's brain development," says Klára Marečková from CEITEC Masaryk University, first author of the study published in the Translational Psychiatry journal.

In men who were prenatally exposed to alcohol, a stronger brain response in visual areas was also evident in response to the absence of loss points during the fMRI task, which may be related to the perception of stimuli indicating the absence of loss, and especially in the putamen, which is known as one of the key reward centres and shows significant activation in addictive behaviour. This higher response in males compared to females therefore brings another important finding, namely that prenatal alcohol exposure may have different effects on the male and female brain.

Although abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy is recommended, drinking during this period is still common. For example, in the United Kingdom, 28.5% of women reported drinking alcohol during pregnancy, compared with 26.5% in Russia and 20.9% in Switzerland. In the United States, 30% of women reported some drinking during pregnancy, with this figure falling to 8% during the third trimester.

The results of this research confirm that there is no safe level of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Even moderate drinking can have long-term effects on brain function in offspring and increase the risk of substance use in adulthood. These findings underline the need to inform the public about the risks associated with drinking alcohol during pregnancy and to promote complete abstinence during this critical period.

Read More

News Interviews and Views Research

Maternal mental health during pregnancy: how it translates to brain development…

23. 11. 2023

News Research Press Releases

Maternal Depression During Pregnancy Is Linked to Atypical Aging of the…

1. 4. 2020