Alcohol-brain cell link found

Study emphasizes danger of binge drinking for pregnant women

Feb 11, 2000 - A new study emphasizes the danger of binge drinking by pregnant women. The study at the Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., was published in the journal Science. It suggests that a single drinking binge by a pregnant woman can damage for life the brain of her unborn child.


The study indicates that rats, and presumably humans, are highly susceptible to alcohol-related neurological damage when developing brain cells are furiously building the connections needed for memory, learning and thought. In humans, this period of rapid brain development starts in the sixth month of gestation and continues for two years after birth. In rats, it comes in the two weeks after birth.

During this spurt a single prolonged contact with alcohol - lasting for four hours or more - is enough to kill vast numbers of brain cells. "There is a massive wave of cell suicide after the brain is exposed to ethanol (alcohol)," Olney said. "The cells die by the millions and millions."

The "binge" in the study gave the rats a blood alcohol level of .20, or 200 milligrams of alcohol per deciliter of blood. Such a level in people is twice the legal standard of drunkenness.

"One glass of wine at dinner is unlikely to cause the damage, but we cannot say that any added intake would be safe," he said. "The most prudent policy would be to have no alcohol during pregnancy."

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