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FASD Research Review

FASD Research Review

FASD Research Review - April 2014

Alcohol can damage the placenta early in pregnancy

Maternal use of alcohol during pregnancy may result in a range of problems in the fetus that include poor overall growth and altered brain development, components of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). Both alcohol and acetaldehyde, a harmful metabolite of alcohol, freely cross the placenta from the mother into the fetal bloodstream. However, the effect of these substances on the placenta has not been explored.

Researchers exposed placental tissue to alcohol and to acetaldehyde at varying levels corresponding to typical concentrations of these substances in the mother’s blood after moderate to heavy alcohol consumption. Both substances reduced the growth and proliferation of placental cells. In addition, alcohol impaired the ability of the placental cells to transport taurine, an essential amino acid particularly vital to the fetal brain.

These results indicate that maternal consumption of alcohol can affect the health of the placenta early in the pregnancy, which in turn may inhibit the growth of the fetus and alter brain development. This research adds support to the message that a woman should avoid alcohol if she is trying to conceive or may become pregnant.


Lui, S., Jones, R. L., Robinson, N. J., Greenwood, S. L., Aplin, J. D., Tower, C. L. (2014). Detrimental effects of ethanol and it metabolite acetaldehyde, on first trimester human placental cell turnover and function. PLoS ONE 9(2): e87328.

Children prenatally exposed to alcohol show effects of generalized brain damage

Children affected by prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) may have a range of physical, intellectual, and developmental deficits known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). Even higher functioning children (IQ scores > 70) may still experience other effects of impaired brain development related to behavior, memory, and social functioning.

Researchers studied a group of 125 children between 6 and 12 years of age with IQ scores in the higher functioning range who were identified by parents or teachers with poor social skills. From this group, a medical exam and history found that 97 had PAE, while 28 were unexposed.

All of the children were tested on a range of cognitive, developmental, and social measures. Compared to the unexposed children, the children with PAE scored lower on most of the tests, particularly in the areas of problem-solving, planning and organization, attention and task completion, and understanding abstract language. Parents and teachers also reported the children with PAE were less able to regulate their emotions, recognize social cues, or learn from their experiences.

These findings support a model of generalized damage to the developing fetal brain as a result of PAE. As children with PAE grow and mature, early recognition and identification of the effects of FASD may allow for improved treatment to address potential cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems and improve social interactions.


Quattlebaum, J. L., O’Connor, M. J. (2013). Higher functioning children with prenatal alcohol exposure: is there a specific neurocognitive profile? Child Neuropsychology, 19(6), 561-578.