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Wednesday, 18 September, 2002, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Warning over pregnancy drinking
Alcohol shelf
Drinking during pregnancy may harm the child
Drinking heavily during pregnancy may cause serious health problems in some - but there may be subtle signs of brain damage even in those spared this.

A UK expert says that the latest evidence suggests that it may be safer for women to abstain completely during pregnancy.

Cases of "foetal alcohol syndrome" are well documented.

Babies of heavy-drinking mothers can develop a wide range of physical and neurodevelopmental problems.

However, some babies appear to be far less affected, and it can be harder to measure the extent of the problem.

Even children with equivalent IQ may have different levels of damage.

A team of scientists from San Diego State University has used the reaction time of children to check for subtle brain damage perhaps sustained during pregnancy.

The theory is that reaction time shows how fast different parts of the brain are working.

Slow reaction

They took two groups of children - one known to have been pre-natally exposed to alcohol, and another non-exposed group.

The activity of the muscles in the upper arm were measured to spot the moment when impulse to move reaches the fibre.

The children were given simple reaction tests - and also more complex tests involving making choices between different actions.

While both groups performed similarly well on the simple test, those exposed to alcohol did significantly worse on the complex tests.


The adult liver may be able to clear large amounts of alcohol from the body in 12 hours - but the undeveloped foetal liver might not do this for two days

Professor Peter Hepper, Queen's University Belfast
This could be because they involve more areas of the brain, which may have been damaged.

Professor Sandra Jacobson, one of the researchers, said: "Even when you control for IQ, the children who are heavily exposed process information and react more slowly."

Professor Roger Simmons, another of the team, added: "The performance of the older, alcohol-exposed children was similar was often very similar to the performance of the younger, nonexposed children.

"We believe that exposure to alcohol results in damage to the brain and peripheral structures, which results in timing deficits."

Warning note

Professor Peter Hepper, of Queen's University, Belfast, said that there was a growing body of evidence linking even moderate alcohol use in pregnancy to deficits in children.

He said: "If it was proven that drinking any amount of alcohol in pregnancy caused you to be born with the tip of your finger missing - something that would hardly affect your life at all - then it would be banned instantly.

"However, even though it might be affecting your brain development, there is no similar response."

He said that the trend towards binge drinking in women was a growing concern.

"The adult liver may be able to clear large amounts of alcohol from the body in 12 hours - but the undeveloped foetal liver might not do this for two days.

"There is a great potential for damage."

He said that his advice would now be for mothers to avoid alcohol altogether where possible - although he conceded there might be examples where this was difficult.

A spokesman for Alcohol Concern said that as long as the pregnancy woman drank no more than a couple of units a week, there should be no problem.

This is the advice of the Department of Health and the Royal College of Midwives.

See also:

27 Jan 00 | N Ireland
16 Jan 02 | Health
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