Just Four Drinks Of Alcohol Over Entire Pregnancy Could Cause Alcoholism In Children, Grandchildren, Scientists Say

Epigenetic changes cause alcoholism in the grandchildren of rats who consume alcohol during pregnancy.

Just four drinks of alcohol during pregnancy can affect alcohol-related behavior in the woman’s children and grandchildren as they grow up, researchers at Binghamton University in New York and South Connecticut University say. Nicole Cameron, Michael Nizhnikov, and colleagues investigated the effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy from a different perspective.

Scientists at the CDC have already made waves this year when they made it abundantly clear that any alcohol during pregnancy has the potential to damage the fetus such that if the baby is born, he or she could have damage to the brain and other organs consistent with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The new research focuses on a different effect of very light drinking during pregnancy, which they feel is important given that between 10 and 15 percent of American women drink at least some alcohol during pregnancy, despite CDC warnings that have existed for years indicating that there was no known safe amount of alcohol in pregnancy.

The new research into alcohol consumption during pregnancy indicates a significantly higher rate of having an alcohol use disorder during adolescence with very light fetal exposure to alcohol. Scientists have believed that prenatal alcohol exposure increases a person’s propensity to drink by “altering the neurophysiological response to the challenge of alcohol,” Medical News Today reports. Now, there is greater evidence to back this claim.

Researchers gave pregnant rats the equivalent of one glass of wine four times during the rat equivalent of the human’s second trimester. After the rats that were prenatally exposed to alcohol were born and matured, they tested the offspring of both genders for water or alcohol consumption. They also tested the prenatally-exposed rats’ offspring. In order to examine sensitivity to alcohol, the researchers looked at the prenatally-exposed rats’ ability to return to standing up from lying down after being given a high dose of alcohol. They did the same for the next generation of offspring as well.

Rats whose mothers or grandmothers consumed the equivalent of one glass of wine or one standard serving of alcohol just four times during pregnancy both had a preference for consuming alcohol and an increased sensitivity to alcohol, compared to the rats whose mothers or grandmothers did not consume alcohol during pregnancy. The deduction by the researchers is that if a woman drinks even very lightly during the second semester of pregnancy, there is an increased chance that her child and her grandchildren born of that child will become alcoholic or have an alcohol-use disorder.

“Alcohol is a dirty drug that may affect multiple systems. We have selected this period of exposure because, in rats, many important developments take place at that time, including dopaminergic axons from the midbrain reaching the cortical plate and the development of GABAergic neurons in cortical layer IV,” Cameron told Medical News Today. “Since the cortex plays a principal role in mediating ethanol-induced effects, these two events are particularly important in the study of alcohol sensitivity and abuse.”

This is believed to be the first study to examine alcohol-related behaviors over the second or third generation, according to a press release.

“To date, no study has shown a transgenerational effect of prenatal ethanol exposure on ethanol consumption in the second or third generation. Other research investigated the effects of alcohol exposure during pregnancy studied the effects only on the fetuses directly exposed or the effects on cellular activity over multiple generations, but never alcohol-related behaviors over multiple generations.”

Future studies will examine the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the the genome and epigenome. A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience claimed that the very first time a person is exposed to alcohol, the person experiences a neurological change and the brain stores the memory of the perceived benefits from alcohol permanently. Cameron commented on how this might translate to prenatal exposure, saying, “I expect the effect to be more potent in the fetus,” which could be why a preference for consuming alcohol is seen in prenatally-exposed rats but it is not seen in rats who consume alcohol the first time during their adolescent period.

People with a greater preference for alcohol and a greater likelihood of being less able to maintain their composure while consuming alcohol might find that either their mothers or their grandmothers consumed alcohol during pregnancy during the second trimester, researchers indicate.

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