Drinking just one glass of wine a week during pregnancy is enough to alter the structure of a baby’s brain, new research has shown.
Researchers from the University of Vienna scanned 24 foetuses between 22 and 36 weeks gestation, which had been exposed to alcohol in the womb.
They found that their brain development was significantly reduced compared to babies not exposed to alcohol, particularly in an area called the right superior temporal sulcus (STS).
The STS is involved in social cognition, audiovisual integration and language perception.
Senior author Prof Gregor Kasprian said: “We found the greatest changes in the temporal brain region and STS.
“We know this region, and specifically the formation of the STS, has a great influence on language development during childhood.”
The mothers in the study consumed as little as one drink per week, although some admitted binge drinking.
Experts are divided on whether small amounts of alcohol in pregnancy are safe, and the Chief Medical Officers in the UK currently advise complete abstinence, even when trying for a baby.
Drinking risks fetal alcohol syndrome
According to NHS data, approximately 41 per cent of women have drunk alcohol at some point in pregnancy – either before or after they knew they had conceived.
Drinking in pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) which can cause learning disabilities, behavioural issues and speech and language problems.
Other problems include mental deficits, malformations of bones and major organs, inhibited growth and central nervous system illnesses.
Children with FAS may also suffer from poor motor skills, higher mortality rates and difficulties with learning, memory, social interaction, and attention span.
Lead author Dr Patric Kienast said: “Unfortunately, many pregnant women are unaware of the influence of alcohol on the foetus during pregnancy.
“Therefore, it is our responsibility not only to do the research but also to actively educate the public about the effects of alcohol on the foetus.
“Seventeen of 24 mothers drank alcohol relatively infrequently, with average alcohol consumption of less than one alcoholic drink per week.
“Nevertheless, we were able to detect significant changes in these foetuses based on prenatal MRI.”
The study was presented at a Radiological Society of North America meeting in Chicago.