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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 00:59 GMT
Alcohol 'damages' foetal brain
Pregnant women being scanned
Thyroid deficiencies can affect mother and baby
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can alter thyroid function in mother and baby which can cause brain damage, research suggests.

Scientists have found brain abnormalities in the offspring of mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy are similar to those deprived of the thyroid hormone in the womb.

If both the mother and the foetus do not contribute appropriate levels of the thyroid hormone, brain defects can follow, some of which resemble those found in children suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

The thyroid hormone system plays important roles in growth, development

Professor Timothy Cudd
A US study in the January issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research investigates if alcohol consumption in sheep results in an alteration of foetal or maternal thyroid function.

Research co-ordinator Professor Timothy Cudd said: "The thyroid hormone system plays important roles in growth, development and in the function of other hormone and organ systems."

Both the mother and the foetus must contribute thyroid hormone for normal foetal development.

In the early stages, the maternal thyroid hormone crosses the placenta to influence development, but later, the foetus has to produce the hormone.

Professor Cudd said: "From a behavioural standpoint, children born to hypothyroid mothers score less well on intelligence, attention, language, reading ability and school deficiencies are similar to those children with alcohol-related birth defects (ARBDs).

The researchers administered alcohol to sheep during the third trimester of pregnancy in quantities designed to mimic binge drinking.

Professor Cudd said: "This resulted in altered thyroid function in both the mother and foetus."

Quit alcohol

Scientists believe sheep are a good model for the human because the thyroid system of both species develops similarly during gestation.

Before the study, it was known that children born to mothers with low thyroid hormone levels are often retarded.

Endocrinologist at the University of Wales College of Medicine, Professor John Lazarus, agreed the thyroid hormone is essential for brain maturation.

He said: "Alcohol does have an effect on thyroid function in adults, but you would have to be drinking large amounts.

"Two per cent of women have a predisposition to auto immune thyroid disease in pregnancy.

"We are about to do a study on the effects of this on the children."

Professor Cudd believes more research now needs to be carried out to test whether alcohol affects thyroid function in humans.

He said: "Clearly abstaining from alcohol use during pregnancy is the safest course.

"However, if our findings are proven to hold in humans, then it may be possible to monitor thyroid function and even correct abnormal thyroid function in mothers to potentially mitigate the actions of alcohol on the foetal brain."

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