Prenatal alcohol exposure is known as one of the leading preventable causes of birth defects, neurodevelopment abnormalities and can also leads to an increased addiction risk later in life.
Recently, Senior Research Scientist Roh-Yu Shen at the University of Buffalo research institute looked at prenatal alcohol exposure and the reason behind the increased addiction risk
The major component that is involved with this change is endocannabinoids,a cannabis like chemical that is produces by the brain.
Dr Shen said, “After the prenatal brain is exposed to alcohol, the endocannabinoids have a different effect on certain dopamine neurons which are involved in addicted behaviours than when brain is not exposed to alcohol.
“The end result is that the dopamine neurons in the brain become much more sensitive to a drug of abuse’s effect. So later in life, a person needs much less drug use to become addicted.”
Seen in the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) of the brain which is responsible for addiction, attention and reward processes, endocannabinoids play a significant role in weakening the excitatory synapses onto dopamine neurons.
In a brain that has been prenatally exposed to alcohol, the effect of the endocannabinoids is reduced due to a decreased function of endocannabinoid receptors.
Dr Shen believes that it is the resulting strengthening of the excitatory synapses that is the critical brain mechanism for increased addiction risk.
She said, “By understanding the role endocannabinoids play in increasing the brains susceptibility to addiction, we can start developing drug therapies or other interventions to combat that effect and perhaps, other negative consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure.”
While there is some debate on how much alcohol, if any, is safe to have while pregnant, drinking alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and low birth weight, while drinking after the first three months could affect the baby after they are born.
Prolonged drinking throughout pregnancy can lead to Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) which can lead to cognitive and behavioural problems.
FASD can also lead to other mental health issues including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety and problems with impulse control.