|New Study Finds Babies Born To Mothers Who Drink
Alcohol Heavily May Suffer Permanent Nerve Damage
Newborns whose mothers drank alcohol heavily during pregnancy had
damage to the nerves in the arms and legs, according to a study
by researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development, one of the National Institutes of Health. The study
was conducted in collaboration with researchers at the University
The nerve damage was still present when the children were reexamined
at one year of age.
The study is the first to examine whether exposure to alcohol before
birth affects the developing peripheral nervous system the nerves
in the arms and legs, rather than in the brain or spinal cord. The
study appears in the March issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.
"Infants born to mothers who drink heavily during pregnancy
are known to be at risk for mental retardation and birth defects,
said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the NICHD. "This is
the first study to show that these infants may suffer peripheral
nerve damage as well."
Adults who drink excessive amounts of alcohol can experience peripheral
neuropathy, a condition that occurs when nerves involved in communication
between the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and
the rest of the body are damaged. This can lead to tingling sensations,
numbness, pain or weakness.
The NICHD-University of Chile Alcohol and Pregnancy Study compared
17 full-term, newborn infants whose mothers drank heavily during
pregnancy to 13 newborns not exposed to alcohol in the womb. "Heavy
drinking" is defined as having four standard drinks per day
(one standard drink is equivalent to one can of beer, one glass
of wine or one mixed drink). All women identified as heavy drinkers
were advised that their drinking habits were potentially dangerous
to their fetus and were offered help from an alcohol counseling
clinic to stop drinking alcohol or to cut down on their drinking.
All of the children underwent a complete neurological exam followed
by testing of the nerves in their upper and lower limbs. The researchers
stimulated the nerves using a machine that passed a very mild electric
current through the skin and then recorded the electrical activity
of the nerves to determine if they were normal or damaged. (The
procedure uses a current mild enough not to cause pain.) The nerve
studies were performed when the children were about one month old
and again when they were 12 to 14 months old.
The children exposed to alcohol before they were born experienced
significant problems in conducting a message through the nerves--both
at one month and one year of age. The alcohol-exposed children did
not experience any catch-up or improvement in nerve function by
the time they reached their first birthday.
"The finding that the nerve damage persisted when the children
were a year old suggests that alcohol may cause permanent damage
to developing nerves," said James L. Mills, MD, MS, director
of the study and chief of the Pediatric Epidemiology Section in
the Division of Epidemiology, Statistics and Prevention Research
at the NICHD. "Because the children were evaluated before they
could talk, they were unable to tell us if they had symptoms such
as pain or numbness. We are continuing to follow these children
to determine what effect this nerve damage will have on normal nerve
function and whether it will lead to weakness or problems with touch
sensation or fine motor skills later in life."
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends
that pregnant women not consume any alcohol. Information on the
hazards of alcohol use during pregnancy is available at http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochure.htm.
The NICHD is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH),
the biomedical research arm of the federal government. NIH is an
agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The
NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth;
maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population
issues; and medical rehabilitation. NICHD publications, as well
as information about the Institute, are available from the NICHD
Web site, http://www.nichd.nih.gov,
or from the NICHD Information Resource Center, 1-800-370-2943; e-mail