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The Sunday Times - Britain

The Sunday Times November 20, 2005

Twitches that indicate alcohol may hurt baby
Jonathon Carr-Brown and Martyn Halle
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SCIENTISTS have captured graphic images of the damage done to unborn babies as a result of women drinking during pregnancy.

Just one glass of wine a week can make babies “jump” in the womb throughout a nine-month pregnancy. Experts believe this abnormal hyperactive behaviour is the result of alcohol slowing or retarding the formation of the central nervous system.

Doctors have warned for decades that women who consume large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can affect their child’s mental development.

The Department of Health (DoH) advises pregnant women to limit their alcohol to one or two glasses of wine a week. Its figures show 61% of women drink while pregnant.

The new research suggests even moderate alcohol consumption makes a baby 3½ times more likely to suffer from abnormal spasms in the womb. The findings, by Peter Hepper, a professor at Belfast University’s foetal behaviour research unit, appear to back the view that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

The government will now face calls to place warnings on bottles about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.

Hepper presented the findings of his study of 40 pregnant women from the Royal Maternity hospital, Belfast, to the Royal Society of Medicine on Wednesday.

None of the mothers was asked to drink but 20 admitted that they would continue to drink during their pregnancy. The other 20 drank no alcohol.

Researchers questioned the 20 pregnant drinkers and found they consumed between one and four units of alcohol (four glasses of wine) a week.

In the first half of the study all the women underwent three ultrasound scans during the first 18 weeks of their pregnancy.

In the second half, the women had four more scans at 20, 25, 30 and 35 weeks. The scans lasted up to 45 minutes to try to capture hyperactivity.

Hepper’s findings have surprised child neurology experts. Between conception and 18 weeks, babies display a primitive “startle reflex” which causes babies to jump involuntarily in the womb at loud noises and other stimuli.

However, once the nervous system is fully formed at 18 weeks, the reflex disappears in healthy babies and is replaced by a calmer “adult” reflex.

Hepper found that the babies of mothers who drank — whether one unit a week or four — all continued to display a “startle reflex” throughout their pregnancy. The reflex in the babies of the non-drinking mothers tailed off at 18 weeks.

The professor also found that the babies of women who drank suffered more “startles” during the first 18 weeks.

Hepper, who published his findings in the Journal of Physiology and Behaviour, concluded that even moderate consumption of alcohol had a serious effect on the formation of a baby’s central nervous system. He explained: “This indicates that the nerve pathways in the brain have been damaged.”

Hepper concluded: “Our study shows that alcohol is having an effect on the baby even at low levels and that is quite disturbing. We don’t think there is a safe limit for alcohol consumption in pregnancy.”

Hepper’s study appears to corroborate US research, conducted after birth, which has shown that drinking during pregnancy lowers a child’s IQ and increases hyperactivity.

Some doctors believe the babies scanned by Hepper are showing the early signs of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) which is thought to cause a range of behavioural and neurological disorders in children.

The Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Trust estimates that between 6,000 to 12,000 babies are affected in the UK each year. Margaret Burrows, a clinical geneticist at Leicester royal infirmary, said: “The startle movement (in the womb) is clearly not normal and would seem to indicate the child has the traits of fidgeting which we see in attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).

“We believe that a proportion of children who have ADHD may have developed it as a result of their mother’s drinking during pregnancy.” The next stage of Hepper’s study will monitor whether the babies go on to suffer mental and behavioural problems.

Lord Mitchell, the Labour peer, wants the government to support his private members’ bill which seeks labelling on all alcohol, warning of the dangers of drinking during pregnancy. He will introduce the bill in the new year. He said: “The majority of the public might not have heard of FAS, but they instinctively know that drinking during pregnancy is not a good idea.”

For the full video see www.timesonline.co.uk/sundaytimes
or see it at http://www.faslink.org/graphics/alcohol fetus startle response stream (wmr).asf