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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 February 2006, 00:03 GMT
Drug limits foetal alcohol damage
Baby
Alcohol destroys a baby's brain cells
A drug may be able to reduce the damage caused to babies whose mothers drink heavily during pregnancy.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) - for which there is no current treatment - is associated with problems such as abnormal growth and mental retardation.

A team at Cornell University in the US found a drug called nicotinamide helped protect mice from FAS.

However, experts warned Public Library of Science Medicine study was no excuse to drink during pregnancy.

FAS is the most common cause of non-genetic mental retardation in the Western world.

FOETAL ALCOHOL SYNDROME
Abnormal facial features
Reduced growth
Central nervous system abnormalities
Impaired learning and memory skills
Behavioural problems such as hyperactivity

It is caused by alcohol disrupting the formation and survival of nerve cells in the foetus' developing brain, particularly in the final three months of pregnancy and the first few years after birth when brain development is particularly active.

The Cornell team injected mice shortly after birth with a dose of alcohol comparable to the amount to which a human foetus would be exposed during a bout of excessive drinking by its mother.

The dose was enough to cause the death of cells in the animals' brains, and led to behavioural abnormalities after the mice had grown to adulthood.

But when researchers followed the dose of alcohol with an injection of nicotinamide two hours later, the number of cells that died was no greater than in normal brain development, and there were no behavioural abnormalities.

Work needed

The researchers say their investigation is at an early stage, and that much more work is needed before it becomes clear whether the treatment would work in humans.

They also stress that public health strategies should continue to focus on dissuading women from drinking during pregnancy.

However, they say it is possible that alcohol damage to babies might be prevented if a mother took nicotinamide soon after drinking.

Dr Raja Mukherjee, an expert in FAS at St George's Hospital Medical School, London, agreed that the research was still at an early stage.

He said more information was needed about the safety of taking nicotinamide during pregnancy. The drug is already used to treat auto-immune conditions.

"The piece suggest you can block one drug (alcohol in the form of ethanol) with another drug which may have its own side effects and cause different types of harm during pregnancy.

"Surely the safest way, as the piece suggests, is to not take anything in the fist place rather than block the effects of one thing with another.

"This is not to detract from the importance of the work for those people - ie chronic alcoholics - who find it impossible to stop."

Dame Karlene Davis, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives warned the new drug should not make women believe that they can drink excessively during pregnancy.

She said: "The RCM is concerned that the availability of this drug could detract pregnant women from the importance of a healthy and well balanced diet throughout her pregnancy.

"Pregnant women should at all times ensure that they're eating the most appropriate, healthy, fresh food alongside a recommended exercise regime to ensure they're at their optimal health during pregnancy."

"FAS is often called the number one preventable birth defect. And the RCM believes that it still is - by following a healthy diet that will benefit both mother and child."


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