no alcohol signNeuroscientists at the University of California, Riverside, have found strong new evidence that consuming alcohol during pregnancy causes developmental problems in unborn babies.

The researchers used a mouse model for this study because the brains of mice posses some physiologic similarities to human brains, although the brains of humans are significantly more complex. The scientists wanted to know how fetal exposure to alcohol affects brain development and changes behavior in the offspring.

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests drinking alcohol during pregnancy prevents the proper development of neural networks within the brain. Neural networks are groups of brain cells that work together to help you interpret information, think and behave. Disruption of these networks change the way you think and act. The team of researchers found that consuming alcohol disrupts neural networks in several areas of the brain, especially in those areas of the brain dealing with decision-making, planning, motor skills and social skills.

The research also showed fetal exposure to alcohol adversely affected the development of a network of connections in the neocortex, which is the top layer of most of the brain in a mouse or in a human. You would see mostly neocortex if you were to look at a human brain from the top or the sides. The neocortex is largely responsible for high-level thought processes, senses such as vision, hearing and touch, processing language and emotions, and for balance and motor skills.

Exposure to alcohol disrupts several main areas of brain development in an unborn child. This disruption may increase anxiety and cause poor motor function, common symptoms of many of the conditions categorized under the umbrella term Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, or FASD. Individuals born with FASD may suffer a variety of physical and behavioral problems that last a lifetime, including trouble learning and remembering, difficulty following directions, and controlling emotions. Behavioral problems range from awkwardness in social situations to being unable to perform daily life skills, such as bathing or feeding.

Scientists already knew that drinking alcohol during pregnancy negatively affects brain and cognitive development. This study demonstrated the connection between exposure to alcohol and the developing neural network in the fetus’ brain.

Source: El Shawa, Hani “Prenatal Ethanol Exposure Disrupts Intraneocortical Circuitry, Cortical Gene Expression, and Behavior in a Mouse Model of FASD.” The Journal of Neuroscience 33 (2013); JNEUROSCI. Web. 10 Dec. 2013