Pregnant Women Who Drink Moderate to High Levels of Alcohol Alter Their Own and Their Babies’ DNA

In a study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, a team of scientists from Rutgers University and elsewhere looked for alcohol-induced DNA changes in pregnant women and their children. The researchers found changes to two genes in women who drank moderate to high levels of alcohol during pregnancy, and in children who had been exposed to those levels of alcohol in the womb.

Sarkar et al found pregnant women who consumed moderate-to-high levels of alcohol and gave birth to children with prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) had higher DNA methylation of POMC and PER2 genes; PAE children also had increased methylation of POMC and PER2. Image credit: Syani Mukherjee / Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

Sarkar et al found pregnant women who consumed moderate-to-high levels of alcohol and gave birth to children with prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) had higher DNA methylation of POMC and PER2 genes; PAE children also had increased methylation of POMC and PER2. Image credit: Syani Mukherjee / Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can include physical or intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning problems.

While there is no cure, early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says there is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant.

“Our findings may make it easier to test children for prenatal alcohol exposure – and enable early diagnosis and intervention that can help improve the children’s lives,” said Rutgers University’s Professor Dipak Sarkar, lead author of the study.

Professor Sarkar and colleagues sought alcohol-induced DNA changes in 30 pregnant women and 359 children.

They found changes to two genes — proopiomelanocortin (POMC), which regulates the stress-response system, and period circadian regulator 2 (PER2), which influences the body’s biological clock — in women who drank moderate to high levels of alcohol during pregnancy and in children who had been exposed to those levels of alcohol in the womb, which passes from the mother’s blood through the umbilical cord.

Heavy drinking in women is four or more drinks on at least five occasions in a month; moderate drinking is about three drinks per occasion.

The researchers also found that infants exposed to alcohol in the womb had increased levels of cortisol, a potentially harmful stress hormone that can suppress the immune system and lead to ongoing health issues.

“Our research may help scientists identify biomarkers — measurable indicators such as altered genes or proteins — that predict the risks from prenatal alcohol exposure,” Professor Sarkar said.

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Dipak K. Sarkar et al. Persistent Changes in Stress Regulatory Genes in Pregnant Woman or a Child With Prenatal Alcohol Exposure. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, published online July 22, 2019; doi: 10.1111/acer.14148

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