It is well known that alcohol consumption during pregnancy has harmful effects. Babies born to mothers who drink while pregnant are at high risk of developing a health condition called fetal alcohol syndrome. A low birth weight, brain impairments, speech disorders and other serious developmental disorders can be the result. But there are still more problems. Alcohol consumption can also change the shape of the face. Researchers have used artificial intelligence to discover a link between changes in the shape of children’s faces and the amount of alcohol their mothers drank before and during pregnancy. Even small amounts, i.e. less than a glass of wine per week, made a difference.
How the Mother’s Alcohol Consumption Affects the Children’s Facial Shape
The study, published in Human Reproduction, one of the world’s leading reproductive medicine journals, is the first to find this association in children born to mothers who drank alcohol up to three months before pregnancy but stopped during pregnanc . It was also found that the association with changing face shape also existed when mothers drank less than 12g of alcohol per week – the equivalent of a small 175ml glass of wine or 330ml of beer. These findings are important because the children´s facial shape can be indicative of health and developmental problems.
Alcohol can have significant negative effects on development, and when a mother drinks large amounts on a regular basis, it can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, FASD, which is reflected on children’s faces. FASD is defined as a combination of growth retardation, neurological impairment, and noticeable abnormal facial development. Symptoms include cognitive impairment, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, memory problems, behavioral problems, and speech and language delays. FASD is known to be caused by maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy, particularly excessive drinking. Until now, however, little was known about the effects of low alcohol consumption on children’s facial development and thus on their health. This is the first study to examine this question in children from multiple ethnic backgrounds.
The Stronger the Alcohol Consumption, the More Significant the Changes in the Face
Researchers used AI and deep learning to analyze three-dimensional images of children taken at ages nine (3149 children) and 13 (2477 children). The children were part of the Generation R study in the Netherlands, an ongoing population-based study of pregnant women and their offspring. The children in this analysis were born between April 2009 and January 2006. Information on maternal alcohol consumption was obtained from questionnaires completed by women in early, mid, and late pregnancy. The researchers divided the women into three groups: mothers who did not drink before or during pregnancy (the control group), mothers who drank in the three months leading up to pregnancy but stopped when they became pregnant, and mothers who did drinking during of pregnancy, including those who drank only during the first trimester of pregnancy and those who continued drinking throughout pregnancy.
The researchers found a statistically significant association between prenatal alcohol exposure and face shape in the nine-year-old children. The more alcohol the mothers drank, the more significant changes occured. The most common features were upturned nasal tips, shortened nose, protruding chin and retracted lower eyelid. In the group of mothers who drank alcohol during pregnancy, they found that even when mothers consumed very little during pregnancy, less than 12 g per week, the association between alcohol exposure and the shape of the children’s faces could be observed. The association between alcohol consumption and face shape weakened in older children; no significant association was found when the researchers examined data for children as young as 13 years old. In the nine-year-olds, the researchers found that statistically significant facial features were associated with the mothers’ alcohol consumption when they compared those who had drunk before pregnancy but stopped after pregnancy with mothers who continued drinking throughout pregnancy. They also looked at data from women who drank during the first trimester but then stopped and from women who continued with their alcohol consumption. The results were similar, suggesting that the associations were mainly explained by fetal alcohol exposure during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Alcohol Changes the Child´s DNA
According to a Rutgers-led study, mothers who drink moderate to large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can alter their babies’ DNA. These findings could make it easier to test children for prenatal alcohol exposure — and allow for early diagnosis and intervention that can help to improve children’s lives.
Building on a previous Rutgers-led study that found binge drinking and heavy drinking can trigger long-lasting genetic changes in adults, the researchers looked for alcohol-induced DNA changes in 30 pregnant women and 359 children. They found changes in two genes – POMC, which regulates the stress response system, and PER2, which affects the body’s biological clock – in women who drank moderate to high levels of alcohol during pregnancy and in children who were exposed to these levels of alcohol in the womb. Heavy drinking in women includes four or more drinks on at least five occasions per month. Moderate alcohol consumption among women is around three drinks per occasion. The study also found that infants exposed to alcohol in the womb — which passes through the umbilical cord from the mother’s blood — had elevated levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a potentially harmful stress hormone that can suppress the immune system and lead to ongoing health problems. The research can help scientists to identify biomarkers — measurable indicators such as altered genes or proteins — that predict risks of prenatal alcohol exposure.
It cannot be stressed enough that there is no safe amount of alcohol you can drink during pregnancy. It is therefore advisable to stop drinking before conception and to avoid alcohol of any kind during pregnancy. This gives women the best possible conditions to protect their own health as well as that of the developing fetus.