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Fetal Alcohol Hope (video)
November 21, 2002

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Interviewees: Sidney Guimont; Marceil Ten Eyck; Anna Klintsova, SUNY Binghamton.

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Produced by Brad Kloza

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy of ABC News, Marceil Ten Eyck, and the University of Washington.

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Elsewhere on the web

National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

FASlink

CDC page on FAS

Despite warnings, some women still drink alcohol while pregnant, and each year thousands of babies are born brain damaged.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, new research suggests there may be hope.


Your baby's brain on drugs

The amount brain damage that results from a mother drinking during pregnancy can vary. But the most severe cases can lead to much smaller brains and profound loss of structures within. In fact, alcohol is the most damaging of any substance during pregnancy.

“The effects of cocaine do not appear to be as devastating as the effects of alcohol,” says Ann Streissguth, director of the Fetal Alcohol and Drug Unit at University of Washington’s School of Medicine. “It’s generally considered that alcohol is the most severe and has more impact on the developing fetus in the life of the offspring than any of the other drugs that have been studied. And that’s hard for a lot of people to understand, because it’s legal.”

And aside from size and weight, the brains of children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) do not work as efficiently.

“The connections between different parts of the brain may also be impaired,” says Streissguth. “So it isn’t just structural differences in the brain. There also appear to be real differences in the effectiveness with which information is transmitted from one part of the brain to another.”

For a long time brain scientists have assumed this damage was irreversible, and that there was little hope for recovery in children with FAS. But recent research on brain “plasticity” has changed the way we look at the ability of our brains to change and repair themselves. And a new animal study on FAS suggests there may be a chance for rehabilitation.

Forced intervention spurs the brain

Anna Klintsova, psychology professor at SUNY Binghamton, exposed premature rat pups to alcohol in order to mimic FAS, and let them mature into adults. Compared to normal (control) rats, they had 30 percent fewer Purkinje cells, neurons in the cerebellum which help control their movements, according to Klintsova.

All rats were then forced to learn how to complete an obstacle course. The alcohol-exposed rats had difficulty getting through the course, but over time learned to complete it just as well as control rats. What’s more, having to learn the course increased the number of connections between Perkinje cells in their brains.

This is the first time research has shown brain plasticity in alcohol exposed (AE) rats. Previous studies placed AE rats in “enriched environments”, in which, for instance, there were toys and obstacles as opposed to an empty cage. While control rats experienced brain plasticity in these environments, the AE rats did not. Klintsova says this is because “they were not interested in exploring the enriched environments,” and likened them to kindergarten children sitting in the corner rather than playing with toys and other children. She and her colleagues believe it was the forced motor training that made the difference for the AE rats. She thinks that something like physical therapy for FAS might be a way to apply this work to humans.

Klintsova stresses that prevention of FAS (i.e., not drinking during pregnancy) is still the most important message, but she feels that her work suggests that kids born with brain damage might still be helped: “It gives us the hope that with the appropriate targeted intervention, we can increase brain plasticity.”

The study—published in the journal Brain Research and funded by the National Institutes of Health—was a collaborative effort that also included researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Purdue University.



by Brad Kloza


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