The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate based upon studies of health records that 1-2 infants per 1,000 live births are affected by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS (CDC, 2017). Other studies suggest as much as 5% of children in the United States are affected by this (CDC, 2017). FAS is very descriptive in its title as it is a condition that affects infants after being exposed to excessive amounts of alcohol in utero. This syndrome is usually depicted by low birth weights, abnormal facial features, poor coordination, etc. Usually these infants are born to mothers with alcoholism that were unable or refused to seek treatment or in the case that a female does not know she is pregnant but continues to drink heavily on a regular basis.
As studies progress, there was a successful trial published in Molecular Psychiatry on July 18 this year describing how a common blood sugar medication or extra doses of thyroid hormone can help reverse symptoms associated with FAS. As the article describes, the mother provides all necessary hormones for brain develop to the fetus while in-utero. When a mother drinks, the necessary thyroid hormones will not reach the fetus and result in an underdeveloped hippocampus which is the center for learning and memory.
In this study, the team gave newborn rats doses of a thyroid hormone that had been exposed to alcohol before birth and tested their abilities to remember certain activities. The rats who were given this treatment were almost on par with the rats who were not exposed to alcohol in-utero. The amount of alcohol used in the rats is equivalent to a mother having two drinks per day. Surprisingly, metformin, a blood sugar drug, had a similar effect, but more investigation is needed to understand these processes.
Could this lead to completely reversing FAS in infants? Unfortunately, there are many studies that are successful in rats that don’t end-up working out in human trials. There are many things that could block the ability to move this forward including the ethical implications of performing studies on infants and understanding the long-term changes. However, if this is successful, it could bring calm to a family’s mind if the mother did not know she was pregnant during the first trimester. While this may help FAS symptoms, infants exposed to alcohol in-utero have other complications such as a suppressed immune system among others.
Would you support scientists in finding therapies to help infants with FAS? If your answer is yes, this is yet another example of why funding for scientific research is a necessity of a functioning and intelligent society.