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Study ties fetal alcohol syndrome to dad's alcohol use before conception

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Expectant mothers' alcohol use during pregnancy is a known cause of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS is one of a range of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). FAS children can suffer physical deformities, reduced intellect, stunted growth, nervous system abnormalities, social problems and isolation. A new study published in Animal Cells and Systems suggests the father's drinking also may contribute to FAS.

The Korean study exposed male rodents to varying concentrations of alcohol prior to mating. Some of the fetuses they helped conceive suffered abnormal organ development and/or brain development. The offspring of the “sober” male mice in the study showed no abnormalities.

The study authors concluded that alcohol consumption, not necessarily heavy use or the disease of alcoholism, affects genes in sperm which are responsible for normal fetal development.

The study mice were exposed to alcohol for only seven weeks, then were given no alcohol for a week before mating. None of the female mice had been exposed to alcohol. The number of embryos per mouse was counted and embryo body weights measured. The study’s authors found “severe fetal abnormalities,” including a disorder called exencephaly, where the brain is located outside the skull. The researchers said the incidence of developmental abnormalities by alcohol use was “statistically significant.”

They concluded that paternal alcohol exposure prior to conception causes developmental defects in the next generation. Transgenerational toxicity — a health effect that occurs when a pollutant or toxic substance passes from a parent to an offspring — caused by paternal alcohol exposure “is possibly mediated through alcohol-induced changes in sperm” at the DNA level.

Until now fathers have not had a causal link to FAS. According to the researchers, this study provides the first definitive evidence that fathers’ drinking habits, pre-conception, can cause significant fetal abnormalities. One study in April 2013 (see related examiner.com article) concluded that mothers' pre-conception alcohol use, even when ceased a year earlier, had a tendency to produce low-birth-weight babies. In both the current study and the unrelated 2013 research, there were birth problems well into alcohol abstinence, reflecting a lasting DNA alteration.

As many as 40,000 babies are born with an FASD annually, costing the U.S. up to $6 billion annually in institutional and medical costs. Costs of FAS alone are estimated at between 1 and 5 million dollars per child. (See related examiner.com article) This estimate does not include the cost to society, such as lost productivity or incarceration, nor does it factor in the burden on families and poor quality of life. FAS, the most recognized condition among FASDs, now outranks Down syndrome and autism in prevalence. A child is born with an FASD every 4 1/2 minutes.

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