CHICAGO --- Exposure to alcohol in the womb doesn't affect all fetuses equally. Why does one woman who drinks alcohol during pregnancy give birth to a child with physical, behavioral or learning problems -- known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder -- while another woman who also drinks has a child without these problems?
One answer is a gene variation passed on by the mother to her son, according to new Northwestern Medicine research. This gene variation contributes to a fetus' vulnerability to even moderate alcohol exposure by upsetting the balance of thyroid hormones in the brain.
The Northwestern Medicine study with rats is the first to identify a direct genetic mechanism of behavioral deficits caused by fetal alcohol exposure. The study is published today in the FASEB Journal.
"The findings open up the possibility of using dietary supplements that have the potential to reverse or fix the dosage of the thyroid hormones in the brain to correct the problems caused by the alcohol exposure," said Eva E. Redei, senior author of the study and the David Lawrence Stein Professor of Psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
"In the not-too-distant future we could identify a woman's vulnerability to alcohol if she is pregnant and target this enzyme imbalance with drugs, a supplement or another method that will increase the production of this enzyme in the hippocampus, which is where it's needed," Redei said.
Efforts to educate pregnant women about the risks of alcohol have not changed the percentage of children born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Redei noted.
The gene involved, Dio3, makes the enzyme that controls how much active thyroid hormone is in the brain. A delicate balance of the thyroid hormone is critically important in the development of the fetal brain and in the maintenance of adult brain function. Too much of it is as bad as too little.
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