MADISON - New research in primates suggests that infants and children who carry a certain gene variant may be more vulnerable to the ill effects of fetal alcohol exposure.
Reported online today (Sept. 21) in Biological Psychiatry, the findings represent the first evidence of a genetic risk for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder - a condition that is characterized by profound mental retardation in its most severe form, but which is also associated with deficits in learning, attention, memory and impulse control.
By identifying a genetic marker that might signal susceptibility to these more subtle fetal alcohol-induced problems, the research fills a pressing need, says Mary Schneider, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of kinesiology and psychology who led the study.
"The big concern used to be the link between fetal alcohol exposure and mental retardation, but today there is increased concern over behavioral problems in these children," says Schneider. "If this genetic marker could provide a way of recognizing the most vulnerable fetal alcohol-exposed children early in life, perhaps we could help them to live more successful and satisfying lives."
The study's results may also help to explain why some children of mothers who drink during pregnancy suffer birth defects, while others seem to escape unharmed.
"Children who are exposed to alcohol because their mothers drank during pregnancy have varying degrees of problems, and the same is true for monkeys who are exposed to moderate levels of alcohol in utero," says Schneider. "So we know there are other factors involved."
With colleagues at UW-Madison, the University of Toronto and the National Institutes of Health, Schneider investigated two forms of a gene called the serotonin transporter gene promoter, which helps regulate the brain chemical serotonin. Past studies of both people and primates suggest that carriers of a short form of this gene are
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University of Wisconsin-Madison